New businesses doing innovative, sustainable things, and older businesses doing fresh things: Mark Shayler picks 21 business that are making an impact in 2021.
“Don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh.” I don’t know who said it first but I use it loads. A few years ago I ran a session on the Power of Purpose to a trade body of marketeers. When I finished someone commented: “That was brilliant. So, I’ve spent 20 years lying to people about the things we sell and all the time I should have just been telling the truth?” Yep. That’s right. It is increasingly clear, from annual barometers such as Edelman or authors like Mark Schaefer and Adam Grant, that customers (‘consumers’, if you must) have changed. Over half of them consider themselves purpose-driven buyers and the majority of these won’t buy a brand if it’s failed to take action on an issue the consumer felt it should address.
A business isn’t what it says it is any more, it’s what we say it is.
As a result, business is changing and the way we do business is changing. Mark Schaefer’s three marketing revolutions end lying, hiding and then control. I’ll add a fourth – the end of romancing. Not everything needs a story. More on that later.
So here are my top businesses to watch this year. Some of them are not new – in fact, some of them are old, but they are doing some fresh things. They are in no particular order.
1. Netherton Foundry
Netherton is a family-owned business making fine iron pans and cookware. The kind of pan you pass on to your kids. Sue and Neil’s mission is to build beautiful products with provenance that last a lifetime. They are on the cookers of the best chefs in the UK and their woks regularly sell out in……. China.
Vanmoof make beautiful urban bikes. Its original model is in the London Museum and it is a thing of beauty. The company innovates continually. Adding a GSM tracker, an alarm, integral lights; introducing a leasing model. And, most recently, building some of the best e-bike technology into its bikes. Vanmoof has the future of urban transport in its hands, but better than that, it’s building beautiful and inclusive products.
3. Electric Classic Cars
Whilst I’m on the topic of electrification and beautiful design, this company is carving a great niche for itself by adding an electric drive train and batteries to classic cars. My great uncles all worked in the Coventry car industry. One was the lead on Jet 1 and Jet 2, another designed the safari roof on what became the Defender, another was the design engineer at Massey Fergusson tractors and my Grandad built Triumph motorcycles. The idea of bringing the Dolomite Sprint or the Herald back to life and up-to-date thrills me. Less so the Allegro.
4. Seven Layer Systems
Seven Layer Systems (7L Systems) takes its inspiration from US military clothing technology and adds in fashion and functionality. Technically advanced clothing that looks brilliant. But that’s not enough anymore. The company builds provenance and supply chain responsibility into everything it does.
5. Fallen Giants
Johnny Tyson is a cabinet maker. He makes crafted furniture and kitchens. But he does so out of waste wood. He finds beautiful wood – wood that may have been destined for landfill or chipping – and he reworks it into functional and stunning furniture that will last a lifetime. Based in Sheffield, Johnny sits at the heart of a resurgence in craft and manufacturing in the city. He is pioneering a circular economy based on up-cycling rather than down-cycling.
6. Atreyu Running
Michael is an endurance athlete. He runs Atreyu. He started making running shoes after becoming disenfranchised with traditional running shoe businesses, due to cost of the products, the lack of provenance and the sell-sell-sell model. His shoe brand is affordable, simple and you can even take the shoes on subscription. The company sees running as a meditation and its mantra is ‘the battle lies within’. It is, with simple products, revolutionising the industry.
Marvin is a clothing and media company in LA, established and run by Marvin Jarret, who started and owned Raygun and Nylon magazines. He’s launched a new eponymous magazine and a clothing range. He’s secured Yungblud, Florence and Raftaar for articles in the magazine and Yungblud has helped launch the clothing brand. The project is described as a punk rock messianic vision for the future. Jarret’s pedigree guarantees column inches but it is the utilitarian androgyny of the clothing that is garnering most interest.
8. Hot Eric
Hot Eric is a functional honey. Raw set honey infused with a range of ingredients that boost health: honey, turmeric, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and all spice. The brand uses simple and yet stunning graphics and the product tastes great. However, the important thing here is the trajectory that it signals. Building a business that helps you think smarter, that builds gut health, that makes you healthier; that’s where the future lies. Making a profit from making people sick makes no sense. Small but powerful businesses like Hot Eric are leading the way.
9. Black Horse Lane Atelier
Black Horse Lane Atelier make incredible jeans that last a lifetime. The jeans are handmade and will be repaired for life. Han created the business as an antidote to fast fashion. He only wants to sell you one pair of jeans because they will last you. But more than that, the company is working to reduce its environmental impact by creating a washing facility in London, reducing waste from manufacturing, and working with the world’s best composite manufacturers to take the denim waste (including rivets) and turn it into a fabulous and beautiful building material. Everything the company does is rooted in sustainability. The word runs through it like “BLACKPOOL” through a stick of rock. What is particularly impressive is that the owner Han Ates actually makes some of the jeans himself. That’s the best way of knowing your product.
10. Kingsley Walters
Kingsley is a leatherworker. Before that he made clothes. He has an incredible eye for detail and makes fabulous leather bags and goods. Based in Holborn, Kingsley is a designer and maker and he makes practical and durable pieces by hand, utilising traditional methods: each product is hand cut and stitched with his own beeswax coated thread. He uses locally sourced materials purchased in London, and traceable to source.
Unbound is changing the way that publishing works. It’s a crowd-funded publisher that is placing the power in the hands of the writer. This is not only fairer, but it means that talent from often-ignored corners of society sees the light. Its aim is to help outsiders redefine the mainstream and it is making a good fist of it. Best sellers include: The Good Immigrant, Letters of Notes, Fuck Yeah Video Games, The Wake, and Pure. It has just been shortlisted for Independent Publisher of the Year.
12. Nubian Skin
Searching for skin-tone underwear when you’re not white was a problem. A real problem. Something that hadn’t escaped the attention of Ade Hassan. So she set up Nubian Skin to produce skin tone underwear for people of colour. Not just skin tone, but also applauded for comfort and support by Elle, Ebony and Bustle. Like ballet shoes for non-white dancers, the only real question is why this took so long?
13. Kemi Telford
Yvonne Telford is Nigerian and, after a career in law and the arrival of her kids, she wanted to build a business for herself – one that fitted her life. She also wanted to bring the colours and stories of Nigeria into life for a bigger audience. She makes beautiful clothes that (as one of her customers put-it) help ‘colour in’ women. She has grown massively over the last three years and now runs an incredible business that shows no signs of slowing. The company’s values are embedded in respect for people and sustainability.
14. Some Good Ideas
Some Good Ideas is a side project of the Good Life Experience and embraces the sharing of the best people and products they can find. So far, so good. But the really interesting part of what it does is to source and produce brilliant products under its own label and price them entirely transparently. Whether that be a mug or a pencil, or a jacket (the best jacket I’ve ever worn) the products are sustainably sourced and even the profit is clearly labelled.
15. Girlfriend Collective
Girlfriend Collective makes inclusively-sized, fairly traded, sustainable sportswear. The items are made from recycled water bottles (PET). This circular economy approach to clothing is fast gaining traction, but is often used as a form of green-cocking (think peacocking and greenwashing), as an additional line amongst business-as-usual clothing lines. But the Girlfriend Collective is not like that. It applies this thinking to everything it does. It is the future.
16. All Plants
The growth in plant-based eating has been relentless. Getting most of our nutrition from plants makes sense from an environmental and health perspective. All Plants offers plant-based meals, flash frozen and delivered to your door. The company is growing fast, clearing both its millionth and 2 millionth meal milestone in 2020, and by the end of 2021 it expects to hit +5million. Sales have grown from £512k in 2017 to £7.2m in 2020, and are forecast to reach over £15m in 2021. One to watch, one to invest in.
Each time we search the web we are responsible for between 0.2 and 0.8g of CO2e (estimates vary widely). This is due to the energy used in powering not just our devices, but the network of servers and the collective internet infrastructure. Imagine if, each time you searched, the advertising revenue generated went into something good, like planting trees. Well, that’s exactly what Ecosia does. The company takes out its operating costs, but the rest of the revenue is spent on planting trees where they offer the most benefit environmentally and to local communities. Even better, the company is completely transparent about where its money goes. So far, it has planted over 122 million trees and adding the search engine widget to Chrome is fast and easy.
Zoom came from nowhere and was then everywhere. The next big thing in videoconferencing is thought to be Whereby. The Norwegian business places security and simplicity at the heart of the communication experience. You use the same link each time, instantly shareable and memorable. Whereby has become the video conferencing platform of choice for Shopify, Trello, Capgemini, GE, and Techstars.
What3words is a geolocation system that has mapped the entire world to 3m2 chunks and given everyone a three-word name. That’s over 57 trillion squares. Not only has this simplified mapping but it has, for the first time, given remote places an address. The company has attracted funding of over £12 million from Ikea, has become the mapping system of choice for the emergency services (it has already saved lives) and Mongolia has adopted the system as its postal address. It is fast becoming the most reliable mapping system in the world.
20. Community Clothing
Community Clothing is a social enterprise with a simple goal; to sell great quality affordable clothing, and by doing so create great jobs and help restore economic prosperity in some of the UK’s most deprived areas. Every garment is made in the UK in one of 28 partner factories, all meeting the highest ethical standards. Most of these factories are family owned (one is in its seventh generation), and most have well over a century in existence, the oldest dating back to 1776. The company pays suppliers well, manufactures at off-peak times (to allow factories to honour existing contacts, and mop up downtime), and sells direct to consumers to keep prices down. The clothes are great and the business model is regenerative.
What? Adidas? Global sportswear giant? Yep, because even giants can innovate. Adidas has always been second to Nike in my wardrobe. Second to launch a flyknit. Second in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (Derek Redmond’s Dad lifted Nike to first place), but it’s now accelerating fast. Collabs with Pharell Williams, Allbirds, Yoga with Adriene and Peloton have shifted its position and it is quite clear that it are investing heavily in sustainability with Parley (ocean plastic) and Allbirds (carbon neutral shoes). An Allbirds acquisition seems on the cards. Keep an eye out, Adidas is going to do more and more in this realm.
You will have noticed that there is a big sustainability theme in this year’s list. This is good. I always say that good is the new cool. I’m saying more than that now, doing good is the new normal. I’ve been working in business sustainability for 30 years. Originally the vibe was ‘keep us out of jail’, then it moved to ‘keep us out of the press’, then ‘make us look less bad’. Then ‘make us look good’, then ‘help us be less bad’, and now it has matured to ‘help us be good’.
This is the era of regenerative busy. I don’t mean businesses that say they do good, but businesses that actually do. We have no time to waste with climate change. It is the single most pressing environmental problem that we have. It is urgent. It’s time to refocus what a business’ responsibilities away from shareholder return (this used to be the only way to measure the good and business did) and to embrace regenerative business. Time for the reGeneration Game.
Mark Shayler is an environmental expert with 30 years’ experience. He’s saved his clients over £150 million per annum and redesigned everything from houses to washing machines, packaging to vehicles. He is an expert in circular economy business models and innovation. He runs the sustainable innovation agency Ape.
The Good Business Festival is passionately non-exclusive. It’s not about what you do or who you know. It’s not about agreeing on everything all of the time. It’s about everyone working towards a better world – no matter where you’re starting from.