UNO + 1 Interview of Pepita Marín by José Antonio Llorente
Pepita Marin left her job at a multinational company to become an entrepreneur at just 23 years old. During a trip to New York, she saw a young hipster knitting on the subway and this simple moment inspired her. She and one of her work colleagues, Alberto Bravo, decided to set up a small online business that consisted of selling wool over the internet. She called the business “We Are Knitters” and started by investing a little over 13,000 euros. That was a decade ago, during the financial crisis. Her annual turnover now stands at 15 million euros. Some 95% of her business is outside of Spain, with sales concentrated in countries such as the United States, France, and Germany.
In this issue of UNO, we’re reflecting on creativity’s role in business by examining the perspective of Marin, CEO and co-founder of “We Are Knitters.” The company, which sells online knitting kits to the public, achieved its best financial result in 2020, mid-pandemic. Just after the beginning of the lockdown, she managed to sell more than 100,000 balls of wool in a single day. The coronavirus has forced people to spend more time at home, which in turn boosted an ancestral tradition– knitting.
P. The brand you created a decade ago – We Are Knitters – has a very personal touch, is easily recognizable, and, above all, is very accessible. What role has creativity played in creating a brand with these characteristics?
R. Creativity has undoubtedly been key over the years. A decade ago, when we started out, it was creativity that drove us to create the project; it was the origin of We Are Knitters.
The We Are Knitters mission is to bring knitting to new generations, help them recover former customs, and awaken creativity in people. From the outset, we knew that creativity was not only what We Are Knitters represented for us, but that creativity and design were the keys to the project’s success and should be apparent in all facets of the brand.
When we started out, we knew the importance of developing a logo and a complete brand identity; it was our cover letter, a simple way to show who we were. However we weren’t designers ourselves, and we couldn’t pay a single professional to take charge of the design. At that time, we worked with what we had. We committed to a very minimal brand, which has served us well for the last 10 years.
P. When you knit, it often produces a pleasurable disconnection that even has a name – “knitting therapy” – which is particularly useful for combating the stress of the pandemic. It is comparable to yoga in the sense that it is thought to help with relaxation and stimulating creativity. When you set up your company, were you aware of all these benefits that are so fashionable now?
R. No, not at all. 10 years ago, no one could have predicted the popularity of this type of activity. Fashions and trends can lead to a business’ success, which is true of We Are Knitters. Before taking off on this adventure, we tried knitting and loved it, but our project began with a very different goal than combating stress. The rise of mindfulness, of yoga, and of “knitting therapy” was one of the lucky breaks we caught that allowed us to continue growing. We are fascinated by this project, which was born with the aim of recovering old customs and stimulating creativity and has now become a lifeline and a form of relaxation as well.
P. The most surprising part of your origin is the early entrepreneurship your project has its roots in, with an initial investment of just 13,000 euros. That start has become a workforce of 32 people, with 95% of turnover coming from abroad. What actions did you implement 10 years ago to bring such a unique idea to fruition? Did you do anything different from the start-ups we see now?
R. We began with very little financing, which meant our only daily goal was to sell and sell some more. That shaped us and, I feel, made us stronger; we counted on each sale and each new customer. It was the only way to survive. Nowadays, companies have more seed money from venture capital and external investors backing the project. It means you can start off with more security and possibilities, which can be very positive. It also has downsides. Support from external investors can also mean that your involvement is not the same, or that you lose focus on what drives your business – your customers and your sales. Our growth has been our driver. Without that, we would still have grown, but nearly as quickly.
P. Both partners of We are Knitters left jobs at a multinational company to become entrepreneurs in a sector that is very different from consulting. How do you see creativity applied to the business?
R. We came from a very uncreative world, which was always in the back of our minds. We love to create things; we are sensitive to materials, colors, and visuals. This interest has set us apart, especially because of Alberto, who is more creative than I am.
Years ago, creativity was thought of as only being utilized in the field of advertising, graphic design, and arts and crafts. Our business is closely tied to these ideas. Of course it depends on creativity, but businesses that we don’t view as “typically creative” also depend on it. The concept has evolved, and we now know that creativity is an asset rather than a brand. It is not only present in images and communications, but also in how a team is run or how a company plans for growth.
P. With a team of more than 30 on the payroll, what roles do confidence, teamwork, and managing talent play in company growth?
R. Our growth has been exponential over the last decade, not just in terms of sales, but also visibility and talent. The project began with just the two of us, but we now have more than 30 employees. We Are Knitters has a major international presence and a high turnover. We are still few in number, but we have every confidence in our ability to continue growing. The key for us has always been unity, confidence, and commitment, especially in recent times since we don’t meet in person very often.
P. What you have achieved is to unite “tradition and modernity.” You made a “historical” tradition into a modern pastime. What is the key to this formula?
R. We achieved this through two key factors: Design (not just patterns, but also packaging, balls of wool, colors, the webpage, images, etc.) and by doing something that was uncommon a decade ago – utilizing social media to connect with younger generations (the trade press, video tutorials on YouTube). We actually learned to knit by watching videos online. We thought that if we, who had no experience at all, could learn to knit, then why couldn’t others? That’s how we came up with our beginner kits. In short, we used careful design and new technology on top of an age-old essence. There’s universal appeal to the idea of making your own clothes while relaxing, doing something creative, and feeling the satisfaction of making something with your own hands.
P. The unparalleled quality of the product is what We Are Knitters is known for. This is enhanced by a well-thought out and defined communications strategy. To achieve this, you needed to find a cohesive creative vision, something many other companies struggle with. How did you manage this in your case?
R. We have been very consistent from the start. Neither our quality nor message has changed, which makes it easier to build a narrative. We love communication; it is one of the cornerstones of the business. We have put a lot of thought into communication and how we present specific products. When you have few resources, you must rely on your communications strategy and creativity. You must strive to reinvent yourself, seek alternatives with the resources available to you, and commit to innovative solutions. At the beginning, we tried to work with influencers, but the experience was not entirely satisfactory. In the end, we found our best ambassadors among our own customers. We are adamant that to ensure customer loyalty, we must have a direct connection with them.
P. For a company to adapt to constant changes in society, it must come up with creative solutions. What must companies do to avoid declining over time? Can that be worked on?
R. It can be worked on and you can utilize hiring. We continue to hire young minds, young people who live in today’s world, at the heart of the market we’re trying to reach. Your team must constantly strive to reinvent and grow. If your brand grows, its talent must grow with it. You need new additions to your team. That is a mistake that major brands have made in the past, starting out with a young team that, since they never added new members, became entrenched in another era.
The pandemic has changed the reality of many businesses. Most of them have faced new setbacks and challenges. We have been lucky. This year marked by economic crisis has, in contrast, seen record sales for We Are Knitters.
P. You began your project during the 2008 crisis. What key advice should young entrepreneurs take into account in this new era? Given your experience, is this a good time to become an entrepreneur?
R. Our business is counter-cyclical; we sell most when people cut back on their outings to cinemas, restaurants, etc. All crises offer opportunities – this may sound trite, but it’s true. There are opportunities to change course for entrepreneurs and for new emerging businesses. When you start a business, it has no past. Everything is new growth. Therefore, now is a good time to start, to hire (unfortunately, in times of crisis a great deal of talent is unemployed), and to negotiate rent, as long as you have the right idea to move forward with. It’s key to believe in your project and put all your time, effort, and excitement into it. Nothing can guarantee you success, but this is a good basis to start from. Creativity and technology help. I always say that We Are Knitters is one of the most technological companies in Spain.
P. Have the sacrifices you have made been worthwhile?
R. No one said it would be easy. We’ve made many sacrifices, but it has all been worthwhile in the end. If I look back, I can say that I would do it again. The greatest satisfaction is to see how far we’ve come and know that we’re able to address new challenges as they arise. It’s gratifying to see your efforts come to fruition and know there are people who enjoy your work. With the eagerness from collaborating companies and our total confidence in the project, we’ve shown that wool can be sold online. We recovered an inter-generational activity that encourages creativity and relaxation. This is We Are Knitters’ greatest achievement.