Jazz Shaper: Ben Farren

Posted on 18 September 2021

Ben Farren is the Founder & CEO of SPOKE, the e-commerce menswear brand with an emphasis on the perfect fit.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing the shapers of the world of business together with the shapers in the world of Jazz, Soul and Blues.  I know you know the drill.  My guest today, I am very pleased to say, is Ben Farren, Founder and CEO at Spoke, the ecommerce menswear brand with an emphasis on the ‘perfect fit’ it says here.  Fed up of falling between the small, medium, large clothing sizes which as Ben says, “Are designed to manage inventory not to deliver fit,” Ben saw a gap in the market.  Ignoring the fact he had no background in fashion, he quit his well paid job as a management consultant and in 2014 launched Spoke, specialising at first in chinos and focussing on staple pieces made with real craftsmanship rather than on trend fast fashion.  Selling exclusively online and using machine learning fitting tools to help customers find their size – more about that later – Spoke now offers over 400 trouser sizes, hand finished to order and has expanded its range to include denim, corduroy and polo shirts too.  Hello and it’s very nice to have you here. 

Ben Farren

Hi, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Elliot Moss

How did the management consultant leave that lovely comfortable world and decide to go into the lunacy and the chaos, Ben, of running their own business?  And I’ve met a few people that have made that move and it always strikes me as a jump from the cerebral to the unknown.

Ben Farren

Yeah I suppose I just, I got to the end of my twenties and the thought occurred to me that there might be more to life than making PowerPoint slides and Excel models and turned out to be a thought I couldn’t shake and I found from an initial expression in something pretty radical and exotic so I didn’t start with trousers, I was so determined to break the pattern and do something different that I found myself working in West Africa for three or four years, starting and running a FinTech business out there based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which was as much of a departure from normal life as it sounds.  An incredible experience, I look back on now through rose tinted specs I think because the kind of raw exoticism of it contrasts quite sharply with the life I now lead in Southwest London in a tiny bubble making trousers.  It was amazing.  I would fly out to Freetown in Sierra Leone every month and spend three weeks out of four there and, yeah, that you know, distance now, that tastes incredibly exotic and there’s some of that that I miss.  But it was really hard and it involved making what we can euphemistically refer to as lifestyle trade-offs that ultimately became too much.  Well, I got married and I didn’t think that was a brilliant way to live out my first year of marriage, spending three-quarters of the time a very, very long way away so, I actually departed that business before I really felt ready to and did suffer quite a lot of regret.  I mean, some of that, some of that explains the choices I made subsequently, hadn’t scratched the edge, I needed to go again.  So I was very suggestible and under those conditions you can make interesting and unusual choices and here I am, as my mum puts it, “Selling trousers on the internet.”

Elliot Moss

Before we come to selling trousers on the internet, you said something which is interesting to me about breaking the pattern which is why you decided to go for the sojourn into West Africa.  Was the pattern, “I’ve been to Cambridge University, I’ve got a great job in management consultancy.  That’s exactly what I expected/other people expected and you know what, I don’t want to be that.”  Is that what you are referring to?

Ben Farren

Yes, sort of a cliché isn’t it.  I mean, desperate cliché. 

Elliot Moss

I mean, but you were happy, I mean you must have been intrigued at the time.

Ben Farren

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the dirty secret at the bottom of all of this, is that I quite enjoyed it.  I’m a bit of a variety junky.  I was being cycled through lots of different industries and being asked to think about lots of very different problems, got on really well with my co-workers, many of them are still great friends, married one of them, so there was lots of… it was really great about those five or six years, sent me out to Southeast Asia, lived in New York for three years, I mean it was pretty good. 

Elliot Moss

You are describing something that sounds quite aspirational Ben. 

Ben Farren

Yeah, it was wonderful.  But the work did feel like it was starting to repeat and I just couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that this thing that I’d stumbled into on leaving University for want of better ideas, hedging my bets, was truly vocational, the thing I was meant to do so I felt like I had to shake the snow globe quite hard.  Yeah, that’s what Freetown represented. 

Elliot Moss

The journeys that you took, and you threw in a lot at the beginning, you know, you lived in Africa, I think you also lived in New York.  The variety thing sounds super important to you.  Why is that, Ben?  Why wasn’t it enough to be on this really clear path in management consultancy doing intrinsically interesting things in different industries, one after another?

Ben Farren

I suppose it just, if I’m being super rational about it, it felt incredibly implausible that I had landed on the best thing.  I think the choices you make in the early part of your career can be quite formative and lock you into a path and, yeah, I just had this overwhelming sense that I was passing some gates and I, you know, it wasn’t going to be long before the range of options in front of me narrowed a lot and, yeah, this was the last point I could do something radical so it was something faintly gratuitous about the radical set of choices I then subsequently made.  But yeah, I don’t regret it, I mean it was an extraordinarily different set of experiences I had out there and a really interesting frame of reference for the kinds of problems that I confront in Southwest London suburbia and in trousering. 

Elliot Moss

And in setting up your own business and having it heavily funded and all the rest of it.  Did you slightly surprise yourself and shock yourself?  Was that part of it as well?  Was there a bit of a…

Ben Farren

Yeah, I was reaching a…  I was trying to feel a bit more uncomfortable.

Elliot Moss

And feel alive?  But it was… did it, do you now, here we are, 2021, business set up seven years ago.  The things that are thrown at you in any given week of running your own business are huge, various, stressful, fun, exhilarating, depressing, all those things.  Are you able to cope and deal with all those things because of everything you’ve done to date?  Is that how you see it or do you not think about it?

Ben Farren

I don’t know.  It’s difficult to say how, to determine how much that very different set of experience prepared me for what I do today.  I suppose, over time I’ve developed some resilience and as is commonly observed and is entirely true, the single, biggest attribute or single most important attribute you can carry around with you as an entrepreneur, is resilience so, I suppose yeah I could argue that some of the things I did in my late twenties fostered a bit of that and that’s probably stood me in good stead.  Yeah, so it’s not something you think about day-to-day but I imagine there’s some of that going on.

Elliot Moss

Does it make you happy doing what you do now in the hot seat?  Or are there moments when you go, what have I done?

Ben Farren

I get asked this question so much and I think, I think people sometimes over interpret the ambiguity of my answer, you know they hear me hesitate over the answer and think “god, it sounds dreadful, he must be really struggling” and that’s not it, it’s just complicated, it’s just the experience of running your own business is so varied and follows such a non-linear path and has so many ups and downs that it’s impossibly difficult to summarise in ten seconds how you feel about this thing that you’ve been experiencing for seven years.  I mean look, it’s as hard as they say, it’s not an easy ride, you are so completely and thoroughly invested in this thing in a way that is entirely different to the experience you have as an employee I think, certainly as I experienced it and that can be really painful sometimes, you know, when you are staring at the ceiling at 4.00am worrying how you are going to fix those things.  I remember telling myself when things were difficult in the early part of my career, you know there was this, it was always this kind of security blanket and the idea that ‘yeah, I can always quit, there’ll be other jobs’, it’s a really powerful thought sometimes retaining your sanity when things are hard and you just don’t have that, that just goes away completely when you decide to start your own business.  So many things lock you in that the promises you made to yourself, the promises you made to investors, pride, we’re all desperate to make sure it doesn’t end in failure and even when you move beyond that point, even when you’ve built some real momentum, yeah, the level of investment you feel and the success of this thing is quite apart from certainly anything else I’ve experienced in my career.  So, it’s not a joyride I think is what I’m saying but, yeah, there are moments of really deep satisfaction and I don’t think those are matched by other career experiences either so, it’s a trade-off and I think the ratio between the pain and the satisfaction changes over time.  It’s really, really hard at the start and it does, the tempo of that kind of positive endorsement increases as things go on, as you achieve more commercial success, as more people have heard of what you are doing, as it sort of seems more legitimate to the outside world, as you look around you and you see the great team that you’ve built, all these wonderful, smart, hardworking people doing something productive that you are able to keep in employment.  These sort of things, as you get scale, start to weigh more heavily in the balance.  So, yeah, in that sense, it gets better. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me to find out much more from my Business Shaper today, it’s Ben Farren, he’s the CEO and Founder of Spoke.  He’ll be back in a couple of minutes but right now, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all of the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Suzi Sendama and Emily Dorothea talk about how fashion brands can be more sustainable while maintain profitability and what consumers should be doing to support sustainable fashion. 

You can enjoy all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again with Ben if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice, or if you have a smart speaker you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find a taster of our recent shows.  But back to today, it’s Ben Farren, Founder and CEO at Spoke, the ecommerce menswear brand with an emphasis on the perfect fit.  I feel like I’m just then moving into advertorial but that’s absolutely fine.

Ben Farren

Great.

Elliot Moss

I asked you a question and maybe it was a bad question, it was if you say I’m always asked that question, am I happy?  I want to ask it in a different way.  You talk about ‘did I find the thing that I was meant to be on this planet for’?  Are you now in that thing, Ben, where you mention some really positive pieces of that and of course, as you said, it’s not a joyride but you talked about the fact that there’s people being productive, that there’s people earning a living and that they feed their family, feed themselves and whatever else and those are really great things and you also talked about, I think it was affirmation, positive affirmation getting thicker and faster as you start to grow commercially?  Do you think you were born to do this thing where you didn’t have a boss and you had no safety net and all those other things that you sort of had at the beginning of your career and no longer have?

Ben Farren

It’s a high bar, right?  But hopefully I’ve found the one. 

Elliot Moss

But are you in the ballpark do you think?  Forget Spoke, which I do want to talk about right away…

Ben Farren

I do think I would find it hard to go back to not working for myself, I think people talk about the one-way street quite a lot and I think that’ll be if there’s a future in my career that isn’t entrepreneurial, I think that would be an interesting re-adjustment and there are certainly moments where I really enjoy the freedom.  I shy from big statements like this is the thing I was put on this earth to do but, yeah, look I’m gratified by it on a day-to-day basis and that feels like a good thing, that feels like an important box to have ticked. 

Elliot Moss

But you are evidently quite thoughtful about these things in a sense that you…

Ben Farren

Yeah, too much. 

Elliot Moss

But in the sense that you really, you are not going to fool yourself that this is it, you are also not going to say because you said you sometimes people misinterpret the ambiguity…

Ben Farren

Yeah, I just think too hard about it.  It’s not… yes, people should… yeah, it’s better than I make it sound sometimes.

Elliot Moss

No but that, okay now let’s talk about Spoke and how this very thoughtful person that I’m meeting for the first time in front of me who really does think things through, actually said, do you know what I’m going to do this, because that in itself is counterintuitive to me for someone who is really thoughtful, often super thoughtful people don’t quite make the decision to say right, I’m going to launch this brand, I’ve seen a gap, there’s a problem, I’m just going to go and do it.  How did you launch the business at the beginning?  How did you actually go, I’m okay with this even though it may not be the thing, might not be perfect?

Ben Farren

I suppose the kind of irreducible piece of it, the thing that I can’t, kind of the driving force behind Spoke, is this really abstract idea I had that I quite wanted to start a consumer brand.  I quite like the idea of building and making a brand that people loved and enjoyed buying from and I can’t really rationalise that for you.  I just saw other people doing it, thought it looked fun, thought there was a potential for professional gratification in that and wanted to give it a go.  I’d landed on that really abstract thought, as I say, I was super suggestible because I’d come from Africa and I hadn’t finished the entrepreneurial journey, I hadn’t closed the loop, the itch hadn’t been scratched and in that context, I could observe, especially across the Atlantic, this kind of Cambrian explosion of direct consumer ecommerce businesses, brands that just came out of nowhere and were suddenly doing a hundred million dollars and I thought that looked like a fun ride and I, you know, started making really dangerous statements like, “How hard can it be?” and “I’ll figure it out” and I suppose, look, the truth of all of these things always is, one thing led to another, it’s not like one day I woke up, rubbed my hands and said “Right, we’re going to start a menswear brand” but slowly, ineluctably that sort of narrative built up and ran a little pilot, seemed to go well, made two hundred pairs of trousers that got bought pretty quickly, not just by friends but friends of friends and I was able to sell it to myself and then, yeah, you put one foot in front of the other and you start climbing and you kind of impose the narrative afterwards but, yeah, there’s a lot of contingency in the moment. 

Elliot Moss

And how quickly did you realise after that initial phase, you know what, this could grow, this could be something?

Ben Farren

Yeah, I felt like an immediate pull of endorsement when we sold the first few pairs, when I sold the first few pairs using a really basic Shopify site.  I put together a landing page and it was promising better fit, inviting people to sign up with the promise of a discount on their first purchase and that got surprising traction, a surprising number of people shared it and I ended up with a list of a thousand people and I just thought there’s something going on here, this isn’t… I’ve alighted on something here that resonates with other people, not just me.  And look, it’s also true that a lot of the frustrations that I have been trying to address for seven years, I felt pretty keenly myself as a consumer, it was real, I was really annoyed that I, you know, I’m pretty bang average, I’m 6 foot and I’m, you know, 80 kilos…

Elliot Moss

I wish that was… I mean, I am not 6 foot, Ben.  I’d like to be average, Ben. 

Ben Farren

I feel pretty ordinary and yet, and yet, because I have a 33 inch waist, not a 32, not a 34 but a 33 inch waist and a 31 inch leg, not a 30 or a 32, actually finding stuff off the rack that genuinely fits was a real pain in the arse, really, really difficult and that seemed crazy, you know, I’m right in the middle of the bell curve, I’m really, really ordinary and average and I’m having to make all of these compromises and take everything to the dry cleaners and it’s 2014, it doesn’t need to be this way and yet that set of ideas was sufficiently compelling to set me on my way and I kind of like a challenge, I mean, I knew nothing about making clothes, I knew nothing about trousers, I knew nothing about the supply chain but actually one of the things that I suppose consulting taught me was, and I actually learnt to enjoy was this task of climbing up the learning curve as fast as possible in three months, just trying to be plausible in something completely new, really, really quickly.  That was a muscle I quite enjoyed exercising, I don’t know if I ever pulled it off but that’s what I was trying to do a lot of the time and with the confidence that gave me, the fact that I’ve done that before many times, I don’t know if it’s confidence or whether it’s just plain foolish but, you know, I was willing to embrace that idea, how hard can it be, I’ll give it a go. 

Elliot Moss

Ben, back in 2014 when you sort of, you scratched that itch and you, as you said, you went on that big learning curve where you were kind of finding out and making sure that you knew your stuff before you launched and then as you mentioned, you launched and it got going.  Many people in your position know then that the next stage I’ve got to get this funded, if I’m going to get the rocket ship going, I need to put some fuel in it.  Did you find that just another thing and do you find that just another thing which is a necessary evil or do you embrace it?  I’m just wondering because some people talk about it as if it’s a really easy thing and they take it for granted and others are like, it is the hardest part of what I do.  What is your relationship with the capital that’s in your business and the people that support that capital?

Ben Farren

I actually have a really good relationship with most of my investors and enjoy spending time with them and their inputs really important and constructive and I’m not, I might sound like a hostage saying that but…

Elliot Moss

Not at all.  Are they patient with you?

Ben Farren

Yeah.  They have been and look, I don’t, if the business hadn’t performed, I don’t know how it would have worked.  I don’t know how those relationships would feel but we’ve had a good run and yes, my relationships with them are positive and constructive.  You don’t start a business to raise money, you start business to build something.  It is a means to an end and the process isn’t great, you know, you just look at the funnel and the way the numbers stack against you, it’s a sales job and with a sales job comes a lot of rejection.  There are plenty of no’s for every yes and they are always hard to hear and there are times when that pressure to fund raising can feel utterly debilitating and I say that as somebody who’s been reasonably successful in doing it so, I don’t relish it and I suppose if you gave me the option to turn it off, you told me it didn’t need to be part of the process, I think that might be a massive improvement in the entrepreneurial experience but if you want to get where you are going fast, if you want to turn what could be a 25 year journey into a 10 year one then there aren’t many alternatives. 

Elliot Moss

And conversely, the people in your business, you touched on it earlier when you said it gives you a sense of pride and wellbeing because you see people doing good things.  Do you enjoy that side of the business, the kind of the people management, the helping people realise their potential bit?

Ben Farren

It’s definitely true to say that some of the most gratifying moments I’ve had in the last seven years, have occurred suddenly and quietly as I stand at the water cooler and look back across the office and see all of these people being productive, apparently enjoying their jobs, there’s a kind of visceral satisfaction that comes with that, that I don’t get in many other places.  It’s also true that people are the hardest thing and that’s true in lots of different ways but we probably don’t have time to go into but hiring the right people and developing them and keeping them happy and retaining the best ones, yeah, these things are really, really hard and some of my lowest moments have been when, you know, things have gone wrong, people have left who I really wish hadn’t or I’ve failed to close on a great potential candidate, those are all low moments.  So, I think the people are a really important part of the experience and define how it feels on many days and that’s both positive and negative, it’s hard to summarise. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for more and my final chat indeed with Ben Farren.  We’ve also got a treat from Robert Glasper, that’s in just a moment, please don’t go anywhere.

Just for a few more minutes, Ben Farren is my Business Shaper.  Ben, you were talking about people and hiring good people and then you lose, you regret the people that go.  You touched on it before and I am hoping you will be able to nail it for me but if someone says, “So, Ben, I’m about to join this business, it’s seven years old, I can tell it’s doing really well, there’s, you know people talk about it, I’ve seen the advert on ITV, I see the digital thing over here, clever stuff on the funding,” they know all their stuff like, you know, they’ve done all their homework and then they say, “So, Ben, the purpose is what?”  I understand that you’ve created a menswear brand, you make it easier for me like me and I’m not bell jar, bell whatever you called it in the middle, I forget the phrase, what was it?

Ben Farren

Bell curve. 

Elliot Moss

The bell curve.  Right.  I’m not in the middle of the bell curve, I wish I was.  6 foot sounds incredibly phenomenal place to be as a person who’s about 5 foot 8ish and shrinking.  But what is the purpose in Ben’s own words, without it being, you know, in the corporate brochure?

Ben Farren

Yeah, I think we all know that we have this funny relationship with clothes and they can do extraordinary things to the way that we feel and the way that we project and the way that we encounter the world.  Maybe the simplest way of putting it is to invert it and say you know what it feels like to walk out the house wearing a pair of trousers that a centimetre too short and swinging round your ankles.  I mean, it literally puts you off your stride, it properly puts you off your game and the reverse is true when you nail it and you feel like the best version of yourself, the rest of the world can feel that too.  I don’t feel like it’s too much of an extension to say, if I can create an experience in this menswear brand that allows more guys to feel like the best version of themselves at 8.00am, there are better days and good days lead to greatness and I’m okay with that.  I mean, you know, back in Africa I was sort of trying to solve world hunger, I was building a mobile banking business that financially emancipated people who had no access to formal financial services but the sense of mission there almost doesn’t need articulating, it’s so obvious and I’ve gone from that to selling trousers but I do think that, you know, creating a loved brand that solves a problem for people every day and makes them feel better about themselves, you are adding something to the world when you do that.  I’m good with that. 

Elliot Moss

And you, yourself, I imagine, probably feel better for the fact that you are trying to find that space which is more you.  In other words, what you do, it may not be perfect, it may never be perfect Ben because you’re a highly intelligent, analytical individual but it probably feels, that thing we talk about, flow, probably feels like you yourself are also every day is better because there’s some sense of yeah, this is a good thing. 

Ben Farren

Yeah, do you know what, I don’t, the important thing is that I don’t fear that the road not travelled, I’m not going to wake up in ten years and wonder what if.  I gave it a go, it didn’t really matter what it was but I took a proper punt and people often say to me, “Oh it's very brave starting your own business” and you can actually, if you want to be really negative about it, frame as an out take in fear, you know, I just desperately didn’t want to wake up and wonder what if and it does help me sleep at night, the thought that I’ve given it a crack and built something because if I hadn’t, if I’d got through the next thirty years just building the PowerPoint slides, I’d always have wondered and I think that I’d have carried quite a lot of regret as a consequence and I don’t have to worry about that. 

Elliot Moss

It’s been really good talking to you and thank you for being so candid as well.  Just before I let you disappear, what is your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Ben Farren

So, I’ve picked a track called Something I Dreamed Last Night by the Miles Davis Quintet.  It’s from an LP called Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet.  I picked it up in a record store about five years ago.  I thought it was a reasonably esoteric choice, you are probably going to tell me that it’s an absolute classic.

Elliot Moss

First time we’ve had it chosen in ten years.  So, pretty original, Ben.  Pretty good. 

Ben Farren

So, I stumbled across it and I play it endlessly, I listen to it two or three times a week.  I can’t really describe what it does for me, it just sort of dissolves anxiety and puts me in a better flow and, yeah, it’s an album that’s become quite a big part of my life and I love this track in particular, it’s a great kind of 10.00pm trying to figure out what’s important for the next day, I’ll put this on and, yeah, everything feels right. 

Elliot Moss

That was Something I Dreamed Last Night from the Miles Davis Quintet, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Ben Farren.  A very thoughtful person, someone who has reflected about all sorts of things without post-rationalising what he has done.  Someone who was looking for purpose and believed that working for someone else was not going to give him the purpose that he has working for himself.  The importance of variety to Ben and the fact that he likes to mix things up.  How important resilience is and that whole journey that many of my guests have been on.  And finally, and I really like this, the notion of going on a steep learning curve and that that was the discipline that the management consultancy background gave him when he looked at setting up the new business.  Really great stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Fed up with falling between the small / medium / large clothing sizes - which as Ben says are ‘designed to manage inventory, not to deliver fit,” Ben saw a gap in the market. Ignoring the fact he had no background in fashion, he quit his well-paid job as a management consultant and in 2014 launched SPOKE, specialising at first in chinos and focusing on staple pieces made with ‘real craftsmanship,’ rather than ‘on-trend fast fashion.’ Selling exclusively online and using machine-learning “fitting tools” to help customers find their size, SPOKE now offers over 400 trouser sizes - hand-finished to order - and has expanded its range to include denim, corduroy and polo shirts.

Highlights

I got to the end of my twenties and the thought occurred to me that there might be more to life than making PowerPoint slides and Excel models.

I was so determined to break the pattern and do something different that I found myself working in West Africa for three or four years, starting and running a FinTech business.

I think the choices you make in the early part of your career can be quite formative and lock you into a path

Over time I’ve developed some resilience and as is commonly observed and is entirely true, the single, biggest attribute or single most important attribute you can carry around with you as an entrepreneur, is resilience.

I felt like an immediate pull of endorsement when we sold the first few pairs, when I sold the first few pairs using a really basic Shopify site.

I’m not going to wake up in ten years and wonder what if.

It’s definitely true to say that some of the most gratifying moments I’ve had in the last seven years have occurred suddenly and quietly as I stand at the water cooler and look back across the office and see all of these people being productive.

You don’t start a business to raise money, you start business to build something.

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