In this episode, I had the privilege of talking with Tebo Mpanza and Jay Topham - founders of lifestyle brand Vaabs.
Teebs and Jay have a strikingly authentic approach to building brands. They are passionate about authenticity - a trait that is modelled in everything they produce. Whilst Vaabs initially started with a fashion focus, it now continues to evolve into a lifestyle brand. It is a brand that is considered, well-thought-out, and beautifully presented.
In this interview we discuss topics such as:
And so much more.
👉 To learn more about what Tebo, Jay, and Vaabs, head to https://vaabs.co/
👉 If you’d like to explore any further training, then feel free to check out our range of free courses here: https://www.impactunltd.com/training
Ben Donovan 00:02
Awesome. Well, welcome to the show today guys. I'm here with Tebo and Jay, the absolute legends from Vaabs. But they're going to tell us all about that. Gents, why don't you introduce yourself before us today? Let's know a little bit about yourselves and a little bit about what you've been up to recently.
Tebo Mpanza 00:18
Awesome. Hey, everyone, I'm Teebs and I'm here with Jay, my good friend, and business partner. We run a brand called Vaabs. And essentially it's a lifestyle brand and with various offerings and expressions, clothing, being one of them, creative being one of them, general last out engagement. And yeah, we set Vaabs up, I guess how long again, Jay? Maybe two years? Two years this year and we launched. Yeah, just you know, it's inspired by where I'm from as a South African and we've got a few products online, which is really cool. We've got some great journals and some great content. And yeah, it's been a real fun journey really, really cool.
Ben Donovan 01:18
Jay, introduce yourself as well. Sorry. Come on.
Jay Topham 01:22
No worries. I'm Jay. I'm the creative director of Vaabs and a brand experience designer. So I work across all the creative platforms and for the brand. And yeah, just making it look and feel as good as it possibly can.
Ben Donovan 01:36
Nice. I've heard a lot of good things about Jay. For a long time. I've heard lots of good things about you. So looking forward to this conversation. Yeah, absolutely. So talk to me, gents about the early days of Vaabs, obviously. Tebo, you mentioned about your roots in South Africa. What were those initial conversations like? Because obviously, business partners, young guys, entrepreneurial spirit coming together to start something. It's quite an exciting journey. You know, I'm sure there's a lot of people listening that would maybe want to go on that journey with a friend. Yeah. Talk to us a little bit about that. That dynamic, that first sort of idea how it all went happened. Yeah, a bit of the process.
Tebo Mpanza 02:16
Yeah, sure. So I had this weird vibes. It was a word I've always used and, and I guess I got to the stage where man is like, I love clothing. I love fashion. That's my thing. I love fabrics. I love aesthetics. I love design. And the only problem was, I wasn't a designer. Nothing about design, which is an interesting start.
And so I thought to myself, man, how on earth could I start a brand? How could I design clothing, I've never designed a T-shirt ever in my life. I've never considered myself a designer, but I thought, man, I probably need to hook up with somebody who could really look into that aspect, that side of things, and a lot of just good vision and direction. I knew what I liked. I was very passionate, I still am very passionate.
And I worked with Jay's brother at All Saints in Birmingham, which is really cool. And somehow Jay came on my radar and I reached out to Jay and we've never met each other nor spoken. I literally reached out to this guy. And we met up and we had an insane discussion where we just clicked, we were so aligned in our passion for what we wanted to create and curate. That just works like from the first meeting you know, like I assume Jay making a stack of notes that his notebook was panned out. It's making notes and you know, I bro we literally took it day by day. From there, we started to just think about the brand, and how the brand looks, how the brand sounds. Jay came back to me the second time we met with all these ideas. I was like "What on earth is happening?" I'd probably never seen it like a creative development presentation in any sense. You know, I could have a few ideas, but to me, it was like this crazy like mood boards, had done some cool stuff with vibes, the word. We started thinking about fonts and logo designs. I was blown away, you know, say so it was just for me that click was everything and I think that's what you've got.
We were talking about the creative brainstorming session the other day with a guy and we were talking about how starting something like this on your own is the hardest thing in the world. And having somebody alongside you can actually be on days where you feel like “Man, this is rough”. I want to give up having someone come alongside and say “Hey, look, man, come on. No, we can do this.” Just a couple of days ago, Jay and I were having a discussion about classes like, “Oh, man, this is tough”. I was like, “Bro, come on, man, we have those discussions all the time”. And so, it was important for me to hook up with somebody who has a completely different skill set than me. And so we just, we made it work.
Ben Donovan 05:16
That's awesome, man. I think there's so much we could, you know, dig into that. So I suppose I probably want to just dig into a couple of aspects in terms of the brand of Vaabs, but then also, a bit later on, I'd love to grill you some more about that partnership, because I know. Yeah, just I'd love to hear more about their strengths. Maybe there's been some challenges in that as well. And yeah, I would love to hear some more about that. So yeah, let's talk about Vaabs initially. So Jay, obviously, it's evident from like, the branding and everything I've seen of it. I know we have a similar friend circle to Tebo, but I see it all the time on my social media. People love the products. What's the journey been like, you know, from conception to now, obviously, it's an active brand, talk us through that sort of that process.
Jay Topham 06:00
Yeah, sure, man, thank you for your kind words. And I think it's been a crazy process that I've touched on what Tebo said obviously, like, the partnership sort of made sense from day one, like I describe myself as like an experienced designer. So I work with brands graphically, but also on physical and like retail experiences like brand environments, and then down to products as well. So it's just really about capturing a brand in whatever form that takes. So like that's the key really, for me to understand. Like, I think from the work I did previously, I knew from the offset that it had to be more than about the product. And because there are so many options, and there's so much and you can't compete on convenience because of brands like Amazon. And you can't compete on heritage because of the real iconic fashion houses.
So it's about creating something that people grow into. So from day one, we just discussed this idea of a lifestyle brand insane, okay, like, what is the lifestyle we want people to buy into? And then what is the product of that lifestyle. So the product is always secondary. And obviously, when we come down to the products, it has to talk for itself. So it has to be unbelievable quality. We knew straight away if we were doing a hoodie need to be seriously heavy, and stuff like this. So we knew that the cotton needs to be organic. And so there's the stuff that we wouldn't compromise on. But I think the bigger message is that it was always more than the product and in terms of the brand.
Ben Donovan 07:28
Yeah, definitely. And I think yeah like I say that's definitely evident. It took us a few things again on that just in terms of product quality, because there are a lot of people listening and my audience, a lot of them are building physical product brands and you know, there can be a temptation to go for the cheapest thing possible, volume over quality. Talk to us about that side of quality. A - How have you gone through ensuring the quality in terms of sourcing those products. Talk to us a bit about that. But also, you know, are you glad you went down that route because obviously with the quality comes a higher ticket price. Have those dynamics worked out for you?
Jay Topham 08:05
Yeah, you know, it's hard. There are many, many points. And I can give you a few examples that are straightened out and where you question compromising because it's so much easier to make things cheaper, quicker, and worse. So, the first example is M, the last product we launched was the proto t-shirt. And we loved the idea of like a sort of washed out and what they call garment-dyed and make the garment out of a sort of neutral color, and then they dye post-production. So it means you get like the sort of washed-out look in the creases and the seeds.
And obviously, up until that point, all our products have been organic. And our manufacturer highlighted that like if we wanted to create a real garment-dyed look, we couldn't use organic cotton because the dye would make it no longer organic. So we have to sit down have a conversation and say, "Look, do we compromise on organic quality and the sort of eco-benefits?" Or "Do we do what we want to do and compromise on the design?" And in the end, we went with the organic cotton, because we felt like we have to be sort of true to that message. And so that's a compromise to the design. And so that's like a great example straightaway, where if you do something cheaper and quicker, easier. I think you just have to set up straight away and it comes back to your brand and your brand values, like making that decision would have been against our brand values because we're a social enterprise. And we're about like consistency.
So to do that, for a better, potentially a visually better t-shirt would have been incorrect. And then just the other day, we're looking for new manufacturers at the moment. And the process is drawn out purely because of the level of quality we are after and we have to ensure for our customers. So I'm working with Louie who heads up a lot of our production at the moment. And we basically have to skip past number of production companies that we could start with because we didn't reach the quality that we're after. And so it draws out the process. It slows down production, it makes it more costly. But it's a decision that we have to make because we want to ensure that we're giving the customer the best products we can.
Ben Donovan 10:10
Yeah, for sure. You guys sticking to the local manufacturers?
Jay Topham 10:17
Yeah, so the first collection was designed in and manufactured in England. It was actually a cotton mill in Leicester. And they actually drove the fabric around the corner where it was constructed. So it was like a beautiful life cycle of the product, really sort of local and we then sort of moved the second batch to Portugal. And because Portugal is sort of iconic for growing cotton. So you find that organic cotton can be a lot better because they've been so far ahead in the cotton industry. And for our next collection, it's sort of up in the air really like we have benefits from each place. And so we'll never use places that don't sit well with us and Portugal we identified at the start because of the quality of the continent, and obviously the UK, it is great to have things made here. And so we're talking to our UK supplier again. So yeah, we always keep it pretty tightly knit.
Ben Donovan 11:10
I think, you know, so much of what you're saying as well resonate with, you know, people that have been interviewing for this podcast to launch and, you know, been looking out for sort of successful people that have built brands that make a difference that make an impact, and so resonates what you're saying with what they've been saying about how you know, you need to build a brand, you need to lead from values, you know, you need to know what those values are, lead with those. And I love what you're saying about how the products have been secondary, because it's okay, we're trying to achieve this with the brand. And once we set that out, then the products will flow after that, which I love. Because I think one of the things about Vaabs as well is what's different to maybe a traditional clothing line is quite a small product range, right? But have you found that as a dynamic because of a lot of people that if they wanted to start a clothing line - they think "I'm going to have t-shirts, hoodies, trousers, jackets, shoes"? You know, everything, but you guys have gone in a bit of a different direction. Talk to us a bit about that.
Tebo Mpanza 12:04
Yeah, I think that came down to the point of quality in order to create quality products, it means that it's a high cost and so it's probably not by choice but also by intentionality. It's a bit of both because we always wanted to be inclusive, have a bit of an inclusive and exclusive element to our offering. And so we wanted to create cool products, but we wanted it to reach people who really wanted to engage with us and so like it cost a lot of money to produce 1000 t-shirts, you know. But we thought, Man, let's do 50 t-shirts, let's do 50 hoodies and not go wild but really control. Have a bit of control, have a bit of management, and see how we go. Because we also wanted to test out the brand. I spoke to one guy, he was advising me and he was saying like Vaabs won't make sense to people. Probably try in about four or five years' time, it's too soon for a word like that to even hit the market because no one's going to get it.
So when you're hearing stuff like that you're like, "Okay, let's test the brand." Is this going to resonate with people? It's got a bit of a South African story. How's that going to work in the UK? How's that going to work globally? You know, we've got a global vision, actually. We want people in Australia to wear our stuff. We want people in America to engage. We want Germans to engage. You know, so there are all these things you're thinking about pre-launch. I would say it's actually being quite strategic, just starting small and growing outside of the fact that to go big. It costs a fortune and you didn't have a fortune. We imagine you had an idea.
Jay Topham 14:03
I suppose the opposite to that argument is that going small cost more in a way because like our margins our near what like, you know when people say oh, but you might not pretend now you have to laugh because you go, I wish I made it for attended, you know when we're making 5050 high-quality organic products in the UK like our margin is small and sometimes it is hard to deal with the small parts because we have people messages saying like I can get the hoodie and you can't get them because when they were dropped, they're sold. And now when it's right for us, we'll drop the back on the thing, but prior to that, we've been developing over products. And so there's a bit of abundance because you find demand, and yeah, it's just about that's where the exclusivity comes into. I think the products are super inclusive and the branding and our tone of voice inclusive, but the products are super exclusive. So if you've got it, got it.
Tebo Mpanza 14:54
Like 1 or 50. You know, one or 50 people have already believed, you know?
Ben Donovan 14:59
That's cool. That's good. So yeah, with the lifestyle nature that you talked about, that's quite an interesting concept as well because obviously people, a lot of people that want to start a clothing brand and all they think is clothes. But you guys have got bigger plans than that. So, yeah, if you're comfortable, obviously as much as you're comfortable, talk to us a bit about the journey and where things are going from here and how it's going to develop.
Tebo Mpanza 15:27
You know, like with everything that's happening in the world right now, this has really caused us to think about the lifestyle side of our brand, just even more. We've got the clothing, we've got also a creative agency that we're developing where we want to come alongside brands and startups and get into brand development for others having created Vaabs. We've got a great team of guys that we're working with. And actually it's to create brands, you know, it's something that you’re passionate about. And the last thing has really come for us. You know, like we've got it on our website, we've got a journal page where it's us engaging with, you know, we call it the Vaabs family where we're writing about some cool stuff into things for the people doing work. So if you've had the privilege of working with some models and some influencers literally around the world, we've got some people who've got, you know, products, some of our products in a number of countries. And so it's been really cool to engage with these people.
We had a guy on our recent blog guy called Chris, he's in Switzerland. He's asking a few questions. And it's great to actually get into a conversation with some people who are wearing our product because we're not just interested in you wearing our product. But we're actually interested in like, what's your story? You know, your story, our vibe, as I see as our strapline, you know, and that's why we're passionate about that. We're passionate about story and we're storytellers. We want to tell stories, and we want to help others tell their story, which is where Vaab's creative comes in. And so, you know, on our site, we've got stuff like playlists, like working from home playlists, which is cool. We're currently working on, I don't know if I can say now. Oh, it's fine. We can say.
We're trying to work on some trends because people are like, you know, we're thinking everyone's at home. So you know, what's different is thinking about interior and thinking about this space, and we're big on the interior, we're big on space, like the space that you're in. It either helps your creative juices flow or it just really stifles it. And so we're particular about designing a particular what goes on the wall. So we've got some print designs happening in the background at the moment, which is cool. We're launching creative brainstorm sessions where people can come, can sign up to, and have some creative brainstorm sessions with us just talking about their brand new idea. Just 30 minutes, it's really quick, but just hopefully enough time to fire people up because we truly believe everybody. I mean, we believe everybody should have a side hustle like everybody listening to this now, I'm so glad you're listening to this because that says to me that you’ve got a number of passions, and I think gone are the days of doing one thing. It's you know, it's I think it's either-or, it's not either-or, but it's but I think we're living in the days of, endless and that, you know, so, so passionate about side hustles we're passionate about people just exploring the creativity and not letting that just be suppressed and becoming a lawyer or an accountant or a doctor.
These things are cool. Yeah, I find a lot of those people have like creative genius, you know, a bit of creative genius inside of them that they probably unexplored and we want to get in on that. And kind of help people explore that. So that's just like a bit of a ... on what's happening
Jay Topham 19:12
And adding to that as well, like obviously, you mentioned talking about this sort of journey of being a lifestyle brand. I think, like Tebo's, they highlighted it so well, they're like, what we would suggest we offer, which comes a lot down to understanding what our customer or like our family needs, and which is one way we sort of a lifestyle brand. But I think, if you scroll through Instagram right now, I don't think we've posted a caption about the product this year. And if we have I think it was in January when we said like, who still after a black hoodie. And so I think that sort of summarizes it a bit like the content is about playlists. It's about like, who's missing going for coffees like what are you guys doing this weekend is sort of poetic stuff. And, like we don't talk about products really. Obviously, when we have to because we drop in new products, we'll let them know there's products but, and it's just about people buying into much more than buying literally is that lifestyle. It's like looking at this brand and saying, dude, I'm envious or something now, or do I see myself in something? They're like, do I want to live that life? And so that's how it really resonates beyond products. And we really do, like, actively push out like the captions, I think is a great example then we don't talk about products really?
Ben Donovan 20:26
Yeah, for sure. So powerful as well, you know, like you're mentioning this story of it, and I think it's a difference-maker, you know, and there are so many people out there just trying to sell as many products as possible. And you know, you got a brand that you're building that tells a story that makes a difference makes an impact. You guys like you've got a charitable sort of operation as well, charitable. You know, something that you would tell us about that where you did what you did there as well.
Tebo Mpanza 20:52
Yeah, so from the beginning, we wanted to make sure that we were giving back, we're helping people But I think that's not something we shout about. It's at the very core of who we are, you know, as even as our business is developing, it has that in mind that we want to actually help people. And so you know, as a South African kind of amount will be cool to do something in South Africa. So we reached out to this charity called Beautiful Gates. And they work with kids who've got HIV and they come from just a lot of, you know, abusive scenarios. their backgrounds are great. And so, you know, a portion of every sale we put aside for Beautiful Gates. So, you know, recently we made our first transfer to those guys. They say please so we're trying just to make sure that we're not looking down all the time, but we're also looking up you know, and we're looking around.
Jay Topham 21:55
Our consciousness and I think often now obviously, sustainability is so important. And, but we really sort of like trying to train our minds to not see that as, like organic cotton full stock. But you know, I mean, like it's what they call a circular economy. So it's just thinking about the whole lifestyle of products and like, the disparity the fashion industry has caused over the years goes beyond using too much cotton in too much water. And so by us putting money back into the communities that we are somewhat connected to, and we see us part of that, so it's sort of beyond the product sale, "Okay, what can we do with this money, we give some back into our community to try and boost that up a bit, as well as using organic cotton and nano plastic and all this stuff." So fingers crossed that message of just like trying to do more good at every point, every touchpoint of that lifecycle.
Ben Donovan 22:42
Totally. Yeah, for sure. That's super inspiring, guys, like honestly, really, really inspiring. I think there's going to be a lot of people out there thinking, Man, what, you know, what can I give back from what I'm doing in my business. So hopefully that makes a difference in that way too. And I think you know, out of this, my hope is that I hope a whole bunch of people hear this thinking I'm going to give a whole lot more thought to the, you know, the story behind my brand, the quality of the products that I'm bringing to the world because, you know, the world doesn't need more crappy products, you know, there's enough of those needs good quality brands with good quality products. So we're super encouraging and inspiring. And I'm obviously just conscious that I've been grilling you for a while now. So that you go and enjoy your evening and talk to me a bit about the partnership side of it, guys, because I know there'll be people out there as well listening, be thinking about maybe doing a partnership with a friend, you know, or, you know, maybe going alone, and there are positives and negatives to both right just speaking to that for a little bit for us if you wouldn't mind. Yeah.
Jay Topham 23:38
I thought it was really interesting listening to Tebo explain the partnership at the start. Because obviously, if I tell that same story, it's from like, a completely different perspective. Yeah, and I think that's probably good because you've got guys coming into this from a creative aspect from a sales aspect and or just from a vision aspect and, and the key thing is that these guys need some different support. And so for me like obviously I was designing brands for clients. And I'd had my own brands like really small stuff in the past and advise people in the past and, and I had a lot of people who would reach out to me and my reaction when I remember my brother told me about Tebo, I remember saying like that I'd been at the moment I didn't need any more work and what he's messaged on it interesting so for like, I'll go for coffee with him no problem. And then like it is as simple as that gentleman, like the connection on the day. Like, you know what I mean?
Jay Topham 24:31
And I've worked on other brands and some stuff like really recent as well where the relationship is like that is the biggest downfall like it goes beyond the products, the branding, the money, anything. If you don't share that vision with someone, and then it is literally just not going to work because there are so many tension points just daily. And when it goes to like someone needs to do something or a decision needs to be made, and all this stuff that you go through daily and if you're not working with someone you fully connect with, and like, it's not about sharing the same opinion, you know, I mean, it's about respecting each other's opinions. And as a designer, one of the first things you learn is like not to be precious about ideas. So you understand that you put an idea out there in a creative meeting. And if someone doesn't think that's the right idea for the end goal, then you have to accept that straightaway. And so I think that's where we work quite well to have that sort of like level of authority where you can make a decision quickly, so as a creative, because I'm not precious about my ideas, I can put four in front of him, and he can pick one and we move on.
And so I think just understanding your skill set, firstly, and so and what you need to sort of balance that out, but then also understanding your personality as well. So I've worked with people in the past, and we're actually the direct opposite of that where I needed more authority from them. And like, I felt like I could make all the decisions and sometimes that's not ideal, and because you don't mean you want it to be a joint thing and you want to compliment each other. It's about complementing each other not being the same. And I think there are the two channels really, like what's your personality mission? And what's your skill set missing? And, like, if that needs four people, it needs four people. If it needs one person, there's one person if that person doesn't exist, then have crap on your own. I mean, I don't think there's anything wrong with like, like starting on your own and then jumping on your network for help here and there. And B, I think these two things are really key for me. Why it took me quite a while to find the right partnership. And like, I can't then replicate that partnership either.
As I said, it's like at the moment, it's quite relevant for me and I think basically I've had something recently not work out because of relationships. And I think it just emphasizes how key that is. It goes beyond skillsets and everything. And it's just about getting that; if you get that right then like, it'll just, it'll just snowball.
Ben Donovan 27:04
And it's like, it's like the business, right? It comes back to those visions and values. Start from that point. And if you know you're solid on those, then everything else will work itself out.
Jay Topham 27:12
Yeah, you got to get them right. And you've got to agree with the value of them. And yeah, so that's what was cool like both understanding that, obviously, I knew we needed brand values and Tebo understood how important they were. So you work on them over and over again, you get creative writers and you like to test them against people. And then when they're right like we had a brand workshop recently, that was 18 months into our brand. And we've got our four brand values out and they were exactly the same. I think we took out a couple of words in the description, just grammatical. But we just agreed that's exactly the same thing. So two years of running the business and we still felt that's what we stood for. We said we should stand for two years. So I think it's a great example that if you spend the time on it and get it right, then it will help for longevity.
Ben Donovan 27:58
Yeah, definitely. Definitely not So good. A lot of people won't do it because they want to go the cheap and quick route but there will be some brands out there that want to really align themselves with where they're going for the long term because the more I talk to you guys, I'm like Jesus this is going to grow, grow and grow. It might not blow up overnight, because that's not your intention, but it's got such firm foundations that this thing is, there's longevity in it, right? And so, I think there'll be people that will be listening that'll be inspired by that. You guys mentioned a branding workshop. Forgive me if the terminology is different, but if people do want to get in touch with you guys, what's the best place to reach out? You know, maybe enquire with you about that.
Tebo Mpanza 28:40
Yeah, our Instagram, just DM us at vaabs.co. And also on our website, their email addresses, both mine and Jays emails on our latest blog - work from home number two. So just jump on, we're so easy to reach, man. We'd love to chat with anybody who's got an idea, you want to explore creativity.
Ben Donovan 29:10
Sounds good. Yeah, obviously we'll get all the links to devolve center to you guys in the show notes for the podcast but yeah, hopefully, some people reach out and really avail your services because that is clear from me just chatting to you guys for a little bit how passionate you are about it. But also, how helpful this could be. So listen, I really appreciate you guys coming on. Maybe just having close just as we close one last sort of your like your biggest last little tip for budding entrepreneurs out there. What would you say to help them be successful in these crazy times we're living in?
Jay Topham 29:48
I feel like the answer is different each week, but I think I think for me, it's like just really knowing, like, what they need because, like, at the end of the day, like Everyone's getting everything they need from somewhere. So like, Who is your customer? And what do they need? like we talked about doing that user profiles like name, makeup, and name, age occupation? Where do they show what they do? So you just fully know who you're targeting and then the whole thing becomes a lot easier because you can just, it's about it's a balance between subjective and objective. So we add our subjectivity to it, what we think is cool, but then we have to be objective to what we know our customer wants. And so yeah, I think it's just like customer first sort of thing. Yeah.
Tebo Mpanza 30:27
Yeah, I would say, knowing your gift is key. So the first thing I tried to do was an Amazon business, right? And I just said, I'm inspired by that. Like, it's working like it was working for, like a lot of my friends, right. And I thought I could do this. But I just didn't get into it at all, like but I always loved fashion. I just didn't know how to monetize that. I just, I had to. I had to really think and talk to people who are doing stuff, you know, and so, so I think knowing your gift is key so that it doesn't feel like work. work, you know, you just flow and it's just fun. And, you know, like Vaabs doesn't feel like work in the slightest. I feel like we're in our zone or in our lane, and I'm just stuck at it, you know it, nothing's quick. You know, it takes time. And that's the best advice I ever got was that it takes time.
Ben Donovan 31:20
So I think it's such a fundamental shift. Because I know for me, it's such a game-changer, right? When I went from the idea of I want to try and make some more money so I can do the things I'm passionate about to realizing, "Hey, why can't these two things coexist?" You know, what I'm passionate about and what I get income from, you know, the same thing. So I think that's the magic spot there. Yeah, absolutely.
Good stuff. Well, thank you so much, guys, for coming on. I really appreciate having you on the show. And I look forward to seeing the amazing growth evolve over the years.