Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Yo! My name is Joel St John and I am the founder of Thor Fitness.
Thor is a Crossfit and lifestyle brand. We are sustainability conscious, believe in helping others, sending out good vibes and having fun. I wanted the brand to come up with head-turning and desirable products and in our short term to date have managed to do just that.
We sell mainly to the CrossFit community online and at events in the UK, but since the founding of the company, we have seen a steady flow of orders coming in from the USA, Romania, Austria, Germany, France, Sweden and others.
For what was an idea is becoming a pretty cool reality. It’s such a fun project to do on the side, some of it with my wife Emma. It’s been amazing to see how the brand has been received in the close-knit CrossFit community. At each event we do, people now recognize us as an established brand and that's a wonderful feeling.
The Geo-Stag Unisex Sweatshirt - one of our best sellers. Organic, Fair Wear, Sedex Approved and WRAP certified
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Believe it or not, I came up with the idea whilst on my honeymoon (don’t tell my wife Emma!). I have always been very interested in design, art, music and so on. During my youth, part of it was probably misspent as I learned how to try and draw, handle a spray can and do graffiti at the legal paint hotspots in Brighton and London.
Further down the line, I purchased some turntables and learned how to mix, scratch (and beat juggle, badly). This lead onto music production where I read magazines and taught myself how to produce music over a 6 year period using programs such as Logic 8, Cubase and Reason. In total, I made a collection of around 170 tunes, mainly drum and bass, but also House, Hip Hop, Dubstep and other Electronic music. A very small number of the tracks got signed, but nothing was ever serious. I would literally spend hours in my little studio, every evening after work, before I started doing Crossfit. Unfortunately, all the DJing and studio time resulted in chronic tinnitus from constantly hammering my poor delicate eardrums, so I had to give up music as it were, leaving a creative vacuum was all that that time was once spent.
Thor for me became a creative outlet once it got going. I learned how to use Abode Illustrator and Photoshop, plus some other handy apps. I have a desire to read only books that I can glean knowledge. Never fiction - always self-help, learn-how or in some instances autobiographies - if I can learn from them. There is so much in the world we have been given, and don’t feel as humans that we should waste time with emptiness being lazy. We all have different gifts and talents - we should look to use and refine these skills - for the greater good of others if possible. I personally enjoy learning, solving problems and hearing other peoples' experiences. I also love to experience life for what it has to offer. My main work background is in electrical engineering and project management. My career has been multifaceted, so I’ve been able to apply many of the skills learned in this trade for e-commerce and ultimately the base-work that’s required for the founding of a brand.
If you are serious, get out and learn the basics. Crunch the numbers. Talk to people about your idea. Get validation. Work out a cost plan. Make targets. Set goals and try to achieve them.
Alongside Thor, I am also actively expanding my CrossFit gym. We have been looking at numerous buildings that were suitably sized for a while. The idea of starting a CrossFit lifestyle brand at the same time of becoming involved in part-owning a CrossFit gym made perfect sense due to their symbiotic relationship. There were clear crossovers that would help both entities, such as digital marketing, kit manufacturing, e-commerce, and general business management. I was recently part of a buyout from my beloved CrossFit club which I’ve been a part of for nearly 10 years. This is being refreshed and we are also opening a sister gym in February 2020 as part of the expansion.
I came across Shopify, entrepreneurial podcasts, Reddit and unbelievably Starter Story before Thor came to life. All of these things were catalysts for me to create the brand as I was understanding how entrepreneurship and in particular e-commerce works. (To be emailed out the blue a year on and ask to contribute to Starter Story is an absolute honor!) The barriers to entry are so low with e-commerce. With powerful platforms like Shopify, this is lowered further still. Researching the rapid growth of e-commerce in recent years, plus the projected upcoming global growth, made an interesting project financially credible.
For the idea to have legs, start walking and be validated, I first made the logo online using an app called Looka. I went through a number of iterations until satisfied. It was the basic bold white on black Thor Fitness with hammer and swirl. Next, they were placed on some mock garments and sent to some friends. “Hey, what do you think of this? Reckon they’ll sell?” After that, I started an IG page and FB page at the end of 2018. The comments were coming in, further validating the ideas. Maybe I could make something of this…?
One of the more recent mock-up designs - the Geo-Lion
After buying my first home in my mid-twenties I went on some property development courses. I became interested in taking something and growing it into something else, so property felt like a good way to create more from less, obviously with an element of calculated risk. I learned how to remortgage using the equity in your home and went on to purchase a second Buy2Let. I guess taking this risk gave me a bit of insight into the world of “side hustling”. Further on, I sold one of the rental places and used some of the capital gains to start Thor. I needed to get rid of the property anyway due to freehold complications. This followed my ethos of wanting to grow something from something else, so was happy with how the project was initially funded.
I then put aside a very conservative amount of money and again considered how to “grow this pot into that pot”. I did not want external funding. It is a scary situation levering third-party debt, and along with my ‘normal’ job which is highly demanding, I did not want this side-hustle to create more unwarranted stress. It is all supposed to be fun after all. The money was not subject to building society interests or regulated payment terms meaning the project was more relaxed.
To this day it still remains a side hustle. Thor is growing steadily and is slowly becoming a household CrossFit brand in its own right. I am still learning new skills that can be put into practice to make the business better. For instance, my wife and I took a photography lesson a few months ago. Now I know my way around a camera, I have been able to take better quality pictures of the products, process them though some interesting apps and make some eye-catching online content, not only for Thor but also the CrossFit pages/sites.
Homegrown lifestyle shots - Death Valley, CA - USA (whilst on holiday :-))
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I signed up for a free trial of Adobe Illustrator and watched a handful of tutorials online. Then I read a very simple book called “How to Launch a Kick-Ass T-shirt Brand”. It all stemmed from there. First things first - learn about the manufacturing of various garment types, materials, cuts, print types and their suitability. I sourced this from the UK firstly. Then after researching, I looked into working with foreign suppliers. Currently, we are using 5 suppliers in the middle and far East and 2 in the UK. We have used numerous other suppliers in the far East too, for items such as mailing bags or lanyards.
Dealing with overseas suppliers has proved difficult in some instances. The company that manufactures the Thor Lightning Speed skipping ropes is a large gym product manufacturer. Outside of Thor, I recently purchased a 7.5-ton shipment with the same manufacturer for a new CrossFit gym we are opening in February 2020. Learning about importing large shipments was a real eye-opener and it became rather fraught during parts of the process. It is much easier on a smaller scale importing our ropes, backpacks and other sundry items. I would advise anyone to import larger shipments that require shipping containers to do your research.
Also to really know who you are dealing with and what you are getting. Get yourself a good shipping agent. Even if you pay a little more, a good shipping agent is worth their weight in gold. I’ve heard some horror stories of things going wrong, business being ripped off or manufacturers underpaying fees which then result in massive handling fees once they land in the UK. It can be a minefield if you’re not careful. Fortunately, my shipping agent lays everything out in layman’s terms and handles all the formalities and nuances involved. They also have a man on the ground at overseas shipping ports which helps as have found language barriers problematic at times.
On top of product design and manufacturing, I’ve had to learn how to do other key tasks such as building out the website. I’ve actually built it out twice now, revamping it in September last year. Digital marketing, brand awareness and activation, online content, quality control, customer services and execution of physical events have also been on the learning curve. The start-up cost was always within certain strict parameters. I did not ever want to go over this, so have made every financial decision very carefully.
Utilize the free trials nearly all of them offer. You can normally tell within minutes if it will add value to your brand. If not lose it. If it will, pay for the 12-month subscription which is usually cheaper than staggering.
Where there was something that needed to be done but didn't suit the budget, I would try to find a cheaper way to do it. For instance, online content - the quotes were coming in for lifestyle shots. It was cheaper to enjoy a photography lesson with my wife, then download an app for £32.99 and make my own lifestyle shots. This is obviously not sustainable as the business grows and I am stretched thin, but is an example of being able to work around a problem with a cheaper solution at the time. I love doing this element too, as you can make some cool visuals fairly easily, with little or no money!
Playing around with some images for online content. The aim is always to be eye-catching
In terms of other challenges, like many small businesses, it was finding the time to do everything. I remember a few people raising their eyebrows about starting a CrossFit brand. Admittedly I don't have a lot of spare time, but with what spare time I do have, better it used making a GIF than watching soap operas in my opinion. Now there is more cash in the company, I am farming elements out which creates more time for me and improvements within the business. Using ‘dead time’, such as the 1-hour train journey to work makes for perfect productive time. You can either stare at the back of someone's head or learn something valuable from a book.
It is interesting to write this out and look back at the past processes and developments. There were certain times that felt like a fork in the road, especially when things went wrong. I have read about the infamous ‘trough of sorrow’. I experienced this myself a few times and felt like throwing in the towel, as so-called entrepreneurship is often a lonely endeavor. That said, the good has outweighed the bad, and what I have learned along the way is invaluable for other areas of life and other projects.
The first 2 validation mock-ups made and sent out to friends
A mock-up of something more recently released
Describe the process of launching the business.
The business was formally launched at The European Championships Finals of January 2019. This is a large CrossFit competition in the UK, attracting the highest level teen athletes, all the way up to the highest level professional athletes, plus everyone in between of all ages categories across Europe. The brand was well received and we got some great feedback that weekend. It was strange to watch people coming over to the stall, look through the rails, then part with their money for our items. That was a very cool feeling! Seeing people buy items validated the brand for me too. People had said “yeah that's cool” or “I like that” when seeing concepts. But hearing feedback and watching real customers validate the brand in realtime made the whole thing real.
At all the events we do, we have taken the Assault Bike. For those that have used this, you know how hideous they are! In the CrossFit community, they are renowned for inducing sickness and pain. We put on a 30-second max-calorie burnout competition. The male and female winner gets a Tank, Tee or rope. It’s hilarious to watch those brave enough come to have a go. People now recognize us at various for our ‘Beat the Bike!’ competition.
Thor’s ‘Beat the Bike’ Competition at Battle For Middle Ground
Shopify was instrumental in getting setup. This went live in February 2019, a few days after the European Championships. As we are an e-commerce brand predominantly, the model was mainly for sales online, supplemented by events for brand awareness and revenue. As many Shopify merchants will tell you, it’s pretty intuitive to set up. There have been some sticky moments with inserting code here and there, but generally, it’s been easy enough. I’ve engaged an expert twice on Hey Carson! from within Shopify, to resize product thumbnails and reposition the Buy1Give1 widget. My limited skills could not do this.
After an audit a few months in, it was suggested by a digital marketing agency we changed the theme for a premium. I then rebuilt the website using Parallex scrolling and rejigged the whole site. This, along with 2 new product launches, had a positive effect overall on conversion rates and navigability on the website.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Instagram is the main outlet for us. Since the changes to Facebook, it was noticeable how difficult it has become to grow a Facebook page to a large following anymore. Even the pages that had huge followings seem to get hardly any engagement. Instagram was the better option due to it being more visual. All the posts share to Facebook by default, but the Gram is the main page for us. Frustratingly, the recent shifts in Instagram have made brands of all sizes, influencers, and other businesses suffer content interaction with posts dropping down the algorithmic chain for a variety of reasons. Having studied what these changes mean, we are looking at how to better effectively use Instagram going forward.
Facebook Ad Manager is another mammoth task to learn. Having tested out various ads, we’ve had pleasantly good returns on a number of these. The world of digital marketing is a full time and refined job in itself. We are currently engaged with a well established digital marketing agency in London who will take the brand to the next level in a number of ways. We are looking forward to that next year. Experimenting with very small money on ads, A/B testing, installing a pixel and creating audiences was a good way to find out who our customers are and how to reach them. The first advert we made was shot on an iPhone whilst on holiday in the USA. I asked my wife to video me wearing the bag in tonnes of locations (much to her irritation!). Then I edited the clips into a 60-second advert on my phone using VideoLeap. The overall ROI of all ad spend to date is 5.7x. I’m extremely happy with that, considering it’s just a bit of experimenting, amateur workings, and an iPhone.
Listening to customer feedback at events was extremely important, as these messages could be conveyed back to them online in various ways too in the ads. This also feeds into the product; what colorways are popular, what cut is favored, what they like and don't like etc.
One bold move we made was a partnership with the longest-running CrossFit ‘Masters’ (over 40’s) competition in the UK. Previous years saw other CrossFit brands such as Razorstorm, Samson Athletics, Reebok, and Big Crocodile sponsor the event. We had some issues with the garments for this event, and we learned a difficult but worthy lesson.
We’ve recently been asked by another very widely known Crossfit events brand if we’d like to partner with them in 2020 which will be amazing for Thor if this goes ahead. The finer details of this are just being agreed upon.
A good friend of mine runs a PR company. We have discussed pushing Thor into the limelight, so that will be on the agenda for 2020, has not committed to any PR to date. Ultimately, I want people to like the brand for its personality and values. This is hopefully conveyed, not only in our product detailing but also on our Instagram and online content by use of humor, interesting facts or other things that people that are part of our community care about. The idea is for it to not feel stale when or clinical when you look at the brand online or interact with Instagram Stories for instance.
Raising the Bar Masters. Year 8 saw Thor take the sponsorship baton
As far as customer retention and growth are concerned, the aim is to keep interested peaked by putting engaging content online. We want people to enjoy the brand and what it stands for, not just like the products. We joined the Buy1Give1 Business For Good scheme a few months ago. Each month, it is possible to donate some of the company's profits back to real, worthwhile causes. I didn’t want it to come across pretentious in the way “Buy this T-shirt and we will give some to charity”. Instead, the idea is more subtle and the givebacks are more targeted and relational.
A screengrab from the website of widgets displaying Thor’s’ impacts’
When the month is out, a clear figure can be put to one side and then assigned to charitable causes all over the world based on revenue. You can learn more about the B1G1 scheme here.
More info on our account giving and impacts can be seen here.
On a personal level, this was very important. In May/June 2017, I was fortunate enough to travel parts of South-East Asia. Most poignant was visiting the slums of Manila in the Philippines whilst staying/working with Christian Compassion Ministries for a short time. I experienced first hand just how hard life can be for an uncountable number of people in the world. This was just a small part of that. In our little Western bubble, we so readily forget just how easy life can be. We’re all guilty of moaning about a lack of WiFi, or other trivial matters like running out of ketchup.
There are literally billions of people throughout the world who don’t have access to proper sanitation, clean water, food or education. The fact that this small business can help some people in the world somewhere is a wonderful thing. I would encourage others to explore this positive impact as part of their business mechanics too. It doesn’t take a lot, yet goes a long way.
The live widgets are linked to our B1G1 account and update in realtime
Along with this, sustainability is another important value. Our recent Geo-Creation series of garments are all of this mindset. They are Sedex and GOTS approved, Fair Wear and WRAP certified, made from 100% organic cotton. Some of the other garments are made partly using recycled plastics. Although these are good things, even these have their limitations. For instance, cotton requires a lot of water to make garments and polyester from recycled bottles still creates microplastics which can end up in our oceans. It is very difficult for a company to be completely sustainable in all manners when you know all the facts. However, we can all take steps to take some of the burdens off of our planet.
I also wanted to only use suppliers that are transparent. I would look for things like their company ratings and feedback, are the ISO-registered, what is their output and to whom, referencing opportunities, do they invite you to their factory, can you take a virtual tour of the factory? You get a gut feeling when talking to manufacturers what their ethical code and processes are like. Even if you don’t go out to see their processes, it speaks volumes if they’re willing to let you come and see.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Fiscally the business is in a good place. As the entire project was bootstrapped, the onus was only on me. I said to myself at the very start when doing cash-flow forecasts I’d rather lose this investment and try to create something than never try. As mentioned, frugality at times has helped overall with financial positioning. All profits, except the portion going to B1G1, have been retained and are going back into the business.
The brand is still very young and we have a way to go - we are only 1 year old! I am excited for more opportunities that might come our way. A recent CrossFit event at which we had a stand was a real boost for us. We had some great feedback and did our best 48 hours of physical sales that weekend. We are looking forward to doing more next year. Imminent plans are to bring out the Thor Comrade Backpack in 3 more epic colors. These backpacks have been so popular. We have also just bought our own massager gun to market, called the Thor Muscle Hammer. We are listening to existing customers and are planning to bring men’s shorts, ladies sports bras and leggings out next year. I am also designing so wrist wraps with the removal of the annoying thumb straps. The next challenge will be to find a supplier who can make these.
The long term goal is uncertain right now. Enjoying the journey is the main thing right now. I have 3 exit strategies in my mind, but which one to take is yet to be seen.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Absolutely. So much has been learned. Even if the business was to fold, the lessons I personally have learned are worth more than any online e-com guru course. When you are starting out, you do every little thing. In some ways, this is a necessity; if you have experienced it first hand, it enables you to provide clearer instructions when you begin to delegate tasks. However, you should punt out tasks to people more clever, more creative, more organized and more something-else than you. Yes, it may be your baby, but engaging the service of other people will bring your brand more value and overall add improvement. Be frugal, but not tight-fisted.
We had a great bit of social proof by sending one of our backpacks to the owner of Barbell Shrugged and The One Ton Challenge - Anders Varner - for a review. We also send him a T-shirt which he loved as much as the bag and described it with great hilarity. This was great exposure as both his brands are well established in the CrossFit community. It was also very natural and he opened his products from cold, so you can tell the review is genuine.
Anders Varner reviewing the Comrade Backpack and T-shirt
Aside from learning new skills and e-commerce mechanisms and patterns, I have learned much about myself and own limitations. I am very much a doer kind of person. However, if there is a task you can delegate and your budget allows this, you should not think twice. Removal of this task off your own list enables you to do something else that is probably valuable.
Trial and error are extremely important. You should cast your net wide and give what you can go if you believe it is going to push your business further forwards. If it’s not, bin off that idea ASAP, waste no more time on it and move onto the next. Don’t be afraid to cut your losses. For example, download an app for content creation. Utilize the free trials nearly all of them offer. You can normally tell within minutes if it will add value to your brand. If not lose it. If it will, pay for the 12-month subscription which is usually cheaper than staggering.
You shouldn’t be afraid to say no, too. It may seem like you want to say yes to everything that comes your way. In reality, this is not feasible. It is easy to be blindsided by seemingly exciting opportunities. But crunch those numbers; quantify the return on investment, or whether the opportunity that’s arisen has the correct timing for your brand.
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” This is Reid Hoffman - the founder of LinkedIn. I couldn’t agree more. It is easy to get sidetracked to the point you might not put anything out. Even iterations of something finally beautiful has its ugly parts.
Aside from paying for assistance, you can very easily find FREE help everywhere you look. For instance, this very page Starter Story was one of the handfuls of content I was reading when learning e-commerce. YouTube, Podcasts and online blogs are all free. You can learn how to dropship, write code, take flat lay photographs or build social media pages within minutes. It takes commitment and diligence, but if you believe in your brand it will succeed.
Watch the trends. Consider your industry and what is working, what isn’t. Crunch those numbers! Invest more in advertising on the items with higher margins. Make yourself stand out online compared to other brands. It’s OK to look at how some of the bigger brands are doing it. But also, it’s good to look at how not to do it. This technique is applicable in many ways. You can even apply it on yourself - “Why is what I’m doing not working?”. You can self-critique and make changes accordingly.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Shopify is the backbone. It is one seriously powerful tool. Within that, we have iStamped review widgets. This is great as it emails people after their purchase and asks them to review the products which provides great social proof for website visitors looking to buy. Instafeed looks attractive at the bottom of the page. Our visitors get a quick flavor of our community from a website visit because of this app. Also installed is Seguno, Free Shipping Bar by Hexagom, Abandoned Cart Recovery and Auto Currency Switcher.
There were around 20-30 other apps we have tried but since removed. This was to simplify and speed up the site. HotJar is very helpful. It analyses the behavior of people browsing the site, showing layers of friction other aspects that can be remediated to make the shopping experience better, increasing conversion.
We have recently moved some of our fulfillment directly with one of our UK suppliers. This is great as it takes a huge burden of fulfillment away. Plus it helps derisk us financially as we do not have to hold as much inventory. It has not been without its difficulties, but it is a great move for us. Our site directly integrates with their meaning order fulfillment is all automated.
Content creation apps include Werble, Pixaloop, Videoleap, Photofox, Snapseed, GIPHY, Life Lapse, Grid Post. Lapse It and Magisto.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Already been mentioned was Starter Story. Tons of inspirational content can be found in there. Shopify Masters by Shopify is great. So much gold in that little mine. Reddit entrepreneurial communities makes better reading than Brexit in a soggy newspaper. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, is in equal parts inspirational, hair-raising and hilarious. The 1 Minute Manager is a quick and useful read. Entrepreneur: Building Your Business From Start to Success by Lars Tvede and Mads Faurholt is extremely interesting, although slightly more heavyweight than other entrepreneurial books. The Lean Startup and The 4-Hour Work Week are also helpful reads.
All of the above will teach you many aspects in many areas, in a variety of ways. If you are more visual, simply search for how to do something it invariably will appear. For instance, I wanted to learn how to draw a two-tone star for the first run of T-shirts. I searched for it and found a 1:30 video. These then made it onto a bestselling T-shirt.
The star in the center T-shirt was made with help from a video on YouTube
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you are serious, get out and learn the basics. Crunch the numbers. Talk to people about your idea. Get validation. Work out a cost plan. Make targets. Set goals and try to achieve them.
Farm work out to allow your business to grow. Don't be afraid to try. If you fail, fail fast and move on. Don’t lament over your failures; instead, embrace them and use it to your advantage. Work out more cost-effective and better ways to do things, whilst remaining entirely ethical. Be honest with yourself and recognize your limitations. Have fun!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are still so young, therefore embryonic in some ways, so cannot justify hiring people in. That said, we are currently subbing out many parts of out to third parties. As time goes on, the first hire would be a huge milestone!
February 2020 will see us at 1 year old! The 12-month goal from there will be to double 2019 revenue, create more head-turning products and engage in more brand activation exercises.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
I would be happy to take questions from anyone should they wish to know more. You can reach me on [email protected].
Thanks for taking the time to ask for Thor’s story and I hope people can find something useful in this interview. I know I found loads of nuggets reading other people’s! :)
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