Wilson Lou, founder of sports brand ZOUMA, talks us through the challenges he has faced in the earliest stages of his business.
What is the background to your business?
I graduated from the London School of Economics with a bachelors in Economics in 2014, and began my career in Investment Banking at Barclays Capital. After 4 years, I decided to pivot careers and moved out to Colorado, U.S., for 6 months where I attended a coding bootcamp. I returned to the UK and began working as a Software Engineer when a year later the seed for ZOUMA was planted.
As an avid runner since 2014, I’ve completed 6 marathons across the world. In 2019, I stood in the start pen of a London based Half Marathon when I realised I was the only one not wearing a plain colour. I’d scoured the internet before the race to find myself a striking running vest. Reflecting now, it took far longer than it should’ve to find one to add to my basket.
The current running apparel market was built on plain black, block or neon colours – but what about people like me who wanted to stand out from the crowd? I’ve always been inspired by how creative football kits are when it comes to colour, print and design. I decided that it was time to bring this to the running world. ZOUMA was born a month later in November 2019. Over the next 18 months, I worked tirelessly to bring ZOUMA to life whilst juggling my full-time job, friends, family, and – among other things – a global pandemic.
ZOUMA officially launched in April 2021 and I’m the jack of all trades behind the scenes. The photographer, web designer, customer service agent, content creator – you name it, it’s probably me… in the spare room!
What is your point of difference?
Different is exactly what ZOUMA stands for! There aren’t many wholly sustainable and ethical sportswear brands explicitly designed with runners in mind in the UK.
Of those, there are even fewer who are willing to think outside the box and go bold with their visuals, fit, and function.
ZOUMA’s products are designed for peak performance, incredible style, and maximum comfort. The combination of striking design, high-performance functionality, and reasonable price-point makes us a game-changer in the UK running scene.
How do you spread the word about your business?
Our current strategy predominantly pushes social media and saturation of the running community through club and crew outreach. Our number one marketing priority is building a community, and this funnels through to our second priority of sustainability education.
How has business been during the Covid-19 pandemic?
It’s been challenging, but good!
Closed gyms and sports facilities during the pandemic led to a surge in runners which certainly increased the size of our target market. We planned to launch in September 2020 but due to a shortage of fabric as a result of the pandemic, this was delayed to April 2021. Luck sadly didn’t prevail, and half of the second batch of fabric was unusable so we were forced to produce the first batch in stages.
Despite these setbacks, we’ve seen fantastic demand since launch, and we can’t wait to see what the rest of the year brings.
What’s the hardest thing about running a business?
Prioritisation! Working out what needs to be done, what job is most important, and then pivoting between jobs seamlessly. My day varies beyond belief; one minute I’m replying to a customer email and the next I’m reviewing designs with our factory.
You have to diversify your skillset, learn what to outsource, and have a huge amount of self-belief.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Our biggest challenges so far have been getting the word out and pricing our products correctly.
As a small, independent brand, convincing consumers to trust us over more established brands has been a huge hurdle. As a sustainable company, we’ve had to be upfront about the fact that this comes at a cost. Recycled fabrics are more expensive for us to work with, and therefore our price point is not at the lowest end of the market. We’ve focussed on quality, unique designs, and perfect cuts, to justify this – which so far seems to have paid off!
What’s the best decision you’ve made so far?
We went through multiple rounds of sampling for our shorts with a manufacturer but just could not get the fit right. I had to make an extremely difficult decision – both timescale-wise and financially – to sample with a different manufacturer instead.
This turned out to be the best decision I could make as they managed to get the fit perfectly the first time. Not only did this save more sampling costs but it means we can bring the best running shorts to the market.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Use your success from all areas of our life to be great at what you do.
Society teaches us to only look at success from a professional career or financial point of view. However, we often forget that success comes in many forms: your friends, your family, your health, your side hustle, your hobbies – they can all help in more ways than you can imagine.
My friends and family have been with me throughout this entire journey and I couldn’t have done it without them. They’ve been a soundboard for bouncing ideas off, models for photoshoots, and reassured me when I doubted whether I was doing the right thing.
What is one thing that would make running your business a lot easier?
More money! We have so many ideas and plans, but we’re heavily constrained financially and as a small start-up, we have to be careful where we allocate resources.
Changes in import duties due to Brexit have disrupted our cash flow and we also had to sink a substantial amount of capital in our initial stock.
What are your hopes for your business in the next five years?
To be the market leader for sustainable running kit in the UK and starting to make a dent internationally!
We want to build a strong community of runners, ambassadors, athletes, crews, clubs, and inspire the next generation to leave the planet a better place through the medium of running.