'I got kicked out of my office, couldn't afford my rent and moved home – but I knew I'd start again'

After his IT security business folded, this entrepreneur made the unlikely jump into making pocket squares.

By William Jenkins Co-founder, Mr Jenks

AS A CHILD I lived in Holland, so I speak fluent Dutch. That’s what actually brought me over to Ireland in the first place.

I started in Hewlett-Packard in IT sales targeted at the Dutch market and moved my career on with different tech companies until 2012, when I set up my own IT security company.

At that time, I saw a gap in the market for a specific antivirus product in Ireland, so I ended up with my own business at 22. I represented the company at multiple trade shows and got a lot of leads and sales at first.

We had a great first six months, but unfortunately at that age I didn’t understand the meaning of cash flow. So I had taken out this fancy office in Dublin city centre and suddenly discovered that it was the wrong decision to make and basically went bust.

I lost everything, got kicked out of my office, couldn’t afford to pay my rent anymore and had to move to Wales to live with my parents.

I got myself a job in Wales for six months so I could save money to move back to Dublin, and that’s when I got my current job in IBM. It’s also where I met my girlfriend, Maeve, who I eventually started my latest company with.

William Jenkins mr jenks 1 William Jenkins
Source: Mr Jenks

Getting in business

Both myself and Maeve work in IBM’s sales division, but she works for the UK market and I focus on the Dutch one.

Since we met each other, we knew we wanted to start a company together. We always found when we discussed about businesses, we were on the same wavelength.

I always knew from a very young age what I wanted, and that was to have my own company. Although I didn’t really have a passion for IT security, I think once I had the taste of entrepreneurship, I was always going to go back owning my own company – just not in IT.

I have always had a passion for tailoring and classic menswear and pocket squares were always something I would wear personally, but when it came to finding quality pocket squares in Dublin I thought there was a lack of quality and choice.

I suppose it’s an unlikely jump from IT security into the fashion industry, but I have always been obsessed with the area.

So after identifying a need for this in the Irish market, that’s why we set up Mr Jenks – a business selling not just pocket squares, but also other fashion accessories for men.

Breaking in

Every startup has their work cut out for them to get off the ground, but I think menswear is particularly hard to break into because there is so much more focus on female fashion in Dublin.

I feel as a menswear company, you don’t get as much attention as a brand and there are also a lack of menswear bloggers compared to women writing about fashion – I could probably name the male bloggers over here on one hand.

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Source: Mr Jenks

It’s hard to build hype, but we’re trying to get around that by creating awareness through our own blog, bringing big-name bloggers into the fray and partnering with big stores like Louis Copeland.

We have also targeted international bloggers in the UK to endorse our product because it can make such a difference – these people are called ‘influencers’ for a reason.

We sent a product to a person who runs The Grey Fox blog over in England, and we could see direct sales coming from that one influencer.

All hours

We learned quite quickly that this is an all-hours business. We go to work for 7.30am, come home at around 4.00pm to have some dinner and then we’re straight back on the laptop working on the startup.

That could be anything from working on the SEO (search engine optimisation) for our website, finding new bloggers to reach out to, dealing with the media or making a list of shops to cold call.

We do everything ourselves and it has literally come from learning as we go, watching tutorials on the internet, researching how other people do things and reading up about how to manage things like the financials.

I’m very proud that we’ve made all this on our own, but one of the main highlights is seeing people wearing your product. For instance, before one of his fights last year, we sent Conor McGregor a gift pack with two pocket squares and an umbrella, but we heard nothing back.

Two months later, McGregor was at an event in Belfast and I saw this picture of him wearing a turquoise pocket square. I thought surely that can’t be ours, but then I saw clearer pictures and it was our product.

Those sort of things are great for small businesses like our own because it creates excitement around the product. It gives us something to show off on social media, which in the end helped generate some sales.

Source: Mr Jenks

Not all rosy

I wouldn’t say I ever considered giving up, but there have been some bad times, without a doubt. For example, around Christmas, which is a peak time for us, we nearly ran out of boxes for our pocket squares.

Up until last year we got our packaging made in Hong Kong, and we had ordered boxes in September for the Christmas rush. We were expecting them to arrive in November but the firm who we had shipped the funds over to had run off with our money.

That nearly left us without any boxes for the Christmas period and, as a young company, that was a big kick in the teeth. It was over €3,000 they got away with and, for us, that’s a lot of money.

In the end we tracked down the boxes, which were manufactured and sitting in a warehouse, but they hadn’t been sent because the shipment company hadn’t been paid.

Eventually they agreed to release the boxes for €2,000 and I was brutally honest with them when I said, “We can’t afford that”. Luckily we got the price down to €1,000, which we had to pay out of our back pockets.

Next up

In the end we had a good Christmas and the pocket squares seemed to do well in the shops we stocked – they’re seen as an ideal stocking-sized gift.

Those sales at the end of last year now give us a great stepping stone for 2017, but it’s getting harder and harder to juggle this with our day jobs. So it looks like one of us will need to take a leap to work full-time at the business and the other will stay working at the day job.

Source: Mr Jenks

Since we’re partners outside of work, it helps us to make that decision. We both trust each other completely, track our finances together and know what’s best for us both and the company.

When we have someone working full-time on the business, that will really allow us to build on what we’ve got and branch out into new products.

We’re actually already in discussions with an Irish tie manufacturer and plan to sell Italian silk ties as well. The possibilities are endless because we could also get into other accessory ranges like belts and leather notepads.

We’re already stocked in twelve stores nationwide, like Arnotts and Louis Copeland, and that’s come from driving up and down the country to meet with shop managers to get a foot in the door.

Our main target now is to break into the UK market and get the product out there internationally. Ultimately we want to become the one-stop shop for men’s accessories.

William Jenkins is the ‎co-founder of Mr Jenks. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.

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