- Entrepreneur, Athlete and Co-Founder of Vollebak
- August 12, 2020
We live in an age of reckoning, confronted with our past failures where the ‘Armageddon’ predictions are now a stark reality. We need radical change and the choices we make now will be profound and last FOREVER. Engaging people on the subject of sustainability is the most important task of the modern age.
Nothing is more important, so where will change come from? Who can lead the way? How should we behave? And why does it matter?
Today we are talking about FOREVER with Steve Tidball, Founder of Vollebak. The experimental apparel brand that uses science and technology to make the future of clothing happen faster. Steve co-founded Vollebak with his identical twin brother Nick in 2016 and they are on a quest to alter the perception of what clothing can be and should be. They believe humans are a frontier-based species always looking for a challenge to overcome and that radical periods of change can lead to the most incredible innovations.
FOREVER is a voyage of discovery on our part. Talking to interesting people about how we’re in this kind of crazy apocalyptic armageddon where we have suddenly woken up to the fact that the world is fragile. Our point of view is that it was human ingenuity that got us into this mess and it will be human ingenuity that gets us out of it. So it’s people like you guys who are showing up with ideas and inventions and creativity that are “part of the solution” rather than settling for being “part of the problem”. Talking of “the problem” – a lot of blame is layed on the fashion industry. Do you see yourselves as part of the fashion industry or are you something different?
I see us as a technology company and our current delivery mechanism is clothing.
One of the things that’s at the core of the company is material science. We are a material science company currently looking at the innovations that are wildly under leveraged and underexploited. We bring those innovations to market in order to try and find solutions to problems that no one is thinking about.
One of the main problems with the fashion industry is there’s not enough intelligence and analysis. If you break down the problem of what we’re facing: giant amounts of stuff going into landfill, (I think it’s 18 million tons just in America each year, and even electronic waste is 50 million tons every year worldwide) I don’t think a huge amount of analysis has been done correctly on what the solutions could be to these issues.
We’re working in this really brilliant phase, which is… we never, ever ask for permission. We simply think about the problem from first steps. And the problem is you have to do one of three things (and ideally you do all three at the same time) which is you:
- Make stuff that lasts longer than people
- Go back through the bin and remake stuff
- Make stuff that uses as little energy as possible and nature sorts it out when you’re finished with it.
Those are really the only three ways that you can approach this problem. Now, within those ways, there are a million different things you can do. You can create microbes that eat clothing, you can melt stuff, you can remake stuff. But ultimately, what we’re trying to do is tackle those three at the same time.
And the reason we want to tackle them at the same time is you can’t predict how innovation is going to work. If you read Stephen Wall – Where Good Ideas Come From, (which is a phenomenal book) essentially good ideas come from a giant collection of people, all of whom are thinking about similar things in a tightly compact city or office or place or space. So what we’re trying to do is make one of those spaces where giant leaps can happen.
You have to make stuff that lasts longer than people. Go back through the bin and remake stuff. Make stuff that nature sorts out when you're finished.
I’d like to explore this bit about where ideas come from, it’s really relevant because you and Nick made the jump from creative communications and advertising to innovative apparel. I’m interested in how your background as a creative team influenced your behavior in this new realm, the world of the startups. How did it influence the kind of ideas you had and the way that you brought them into reality?
Working in advertising brings a brutal simplicity to your thinking that a lot of people don’t have. We think about it in two ways, which are very, very easy. Firstly, “is your idea good?” There’s a huge amount of overcomplicated thinking, both in advertising and clothing that distracts from the essential problem, which is, have you got a good idea? And secondly, “will the people you want to give a shit about it actually give a shit about it?” Advertising is all about simplicity. Now, on a more complex level, what we chose to do is use an overlay strategy from the world of three Michelin star restaurants. We looked at Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià and we found that of any creative people operating in the world, they had the cleanest principles that we wanted to overlay on clothing, which is… “here is a dish”. It has a name that the press is going to really like and everyone is going to understand, like “Bacon and Egg Ice Cream” and it also has unbelievably distilled delivery, which is something incredibly beautiful that everyone can see, and also it then tastes really fucking good. It’s about getting to simplicity. In the case of our plant and algae t-shirt for example, if you say “this t-shirt is sustainable” people yawn and turn the page. If you say “worms will eat this t-shirt when you’re finished with it” you have a chance of someone caring. And then if you have a picture of worms eating a t-shirt, people are interested. We haven’t done anything utterly radical there. Anyone could have made this thing a few years before us. We were just the first people to put the things together. Any chef for the last twenty years could have made bacon and bacon and egg ice cream, they just haven’t thought to do it.
And so now when we’re coming up with ideas, they don’t actually feel that hard. We’ve done them for a long time. And you know when you have a good idea: does it make you laugh? Does it make the person next to you laugh? Then yes, we have an idea. It’s a really funny idea. It’s original. It’s a really interesting idea and it serves a purpose in a way that no one’s ever thought about before. And that’s what advertising gives you.
Working in advertising brings a brutal simplicity to your thinking.
The grit, resilience and determination you need when you’re running your own business is significant, much more so than if you have a regular job. Could you talk a bit about how your experiences in ultra-endurance sports, these marathons where you run all night and you almost die! Are those experiences relatable or transferable to running a startup?
It’s so transferable, it’s insane. Because I love sport so much I’m constantly drawing (some good and some terrible) analogies between sport and business! It is so, so similar, it’s unbelievable. The reality is advertising in itself is a fairly hard discipline. You will get fired, you will get made redundant, you will get shot in the back of the head and this just goes with the territory and you kind of just grew up with it. So you become tougher because of that. But when we started doing these ultra races, I realised how physically and mentally soft I was. And that’s not something I contemplated before. And you realise how dominating an inner monologue can be. During the Namibia Ultramarathon, for 18 hours, the inner monologue in my head was quit, quit, quit, quit.
There is a very basic reality we got to, which is when you do those races, because they’re such a microcosm of life and suffering and you’re choosing that suffering, there’s a very powerful sense at the end of it like “I’ll never take a glass of cold water for granted again, I’ll never take a comfortable bed for granted again. I’ll never take eating for granted again.” Now of course you do. You take it for granted within a week. However, it does actually leave you with a very powerful sense of something very basic. However hard the job is. Do I have somewhere to shit? Yes. Do I have some water to drink? Yes. Can I go to sleep at some point? Yes. And do I get to define when I get to go to sleep? Yes. And so you go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So when you’re thinking, we’ve got this challenge with raising money or this challenge with where’s our next market or internal staffing problems, whatever those things are, you then get to rank it. Am I being chased by hyenas through a desert because I smell of death. No. OK, we’re probably good then!
There’s this internal mental ranking mechanism that goes on: is this tough compared with other things I’ve done? And the answer typically comes back as no. It will be a significant intellectual challenge or it might be an emotional challenge because your ego is finding it hard to cope, for instance. But is it ever physically hard to the point where you think you might die within a time frame closer than an hour? No, never.
Having gone through those things and been lucky enough to escape very, very near-death experiences three times now, you just rank it. Like Viktor Frankl, the the Holocaust survivor, who says “Choose your attitude” it’s about choosing a frame of reference. Compared to death, it’s not actually that hard.
There’s a fundamental connection [between Startups and ultra-endurance sport] and I would honestly recommend that founders run ultra marathons because then you realise what hard actually feels like.
In Namibia [during an ultra marathon] I was told I was going to die within half an hour. I got so hot that my body thought it was cold. It was 140 degrees and I was shaking and my teeth were chattering and my body was doing everything it could to warm me up. You have half an hour to live at that point. If it carries on going you simply die. There’s not a button you press to stop that. I stopped running for about eight hours and then decided to rejoin to race the last two marathons.
[Business] is only ever going to be an intellectual challenge. And it’s only so hard that can be.
When we started doing these ultra races I realised how physically and mentally soft I was.
So we’ve all got this emphasis on sustainability now and there’s this creative innovation around materials and particularly the waste stuff that you do. I’m interested because I’ve known you for a while and I’m wondering when it came to the forefront, because when we first started talking about Vollebak, it probably wasn’t there right? When did it emerge, and when did it become necessary to do stuff in a more conscientious way?
Two things collided. So when we first set out the company we had three challenges we’d thought about from three races we’d done. It was incredibly simple. We’d run across Namibia and we couldn’t sleep the night before, Nick had run across the Alps and he’d had insanely low visibility on these knife-edge precipice mountains. And he’d finished running in the Amazon and all the athletes burnt all their clothes at the end of it. So we ended up with three formative challenges. How do you sleep the night before a race? How do you light yourself up? And should we really be burning clothing if we traveled all the way to the Amazon? That feels kind of wrong.
We solved the first challenge (sleep the night before) with the Relaxation Hoodie, which is our first ever product. We solved the second one (lighting yourself up) with the Solar Charged Jacket, which was our third product. It took us longer to solve the third one with our Plant And Algae T Shirt because it was the hardest to create. Even though it’s made out of wood and algae the supply chain just didn’t exist to create it.
We never wrote a business plan with sustainability at the heart of it. However, one of the most formative challenges we ever set out with has sustainability baked into it without us having formalized it in any kind of way. The reason we carried on pushing with Plant And Algae (and now we have Plant And Pomegranate and Garbage Watch is because A, we wanted to solve it – because it’s like an itch and you want to scratch it, and B: a growing sense of responsibility when we think about what kind of company we want to become. We’ve baked it in now, we approach things fundamentally differently.
There's a fundamental connection between Startups and ultra-endurance sport. I recommend that founders run ultra-marathons because then you realise what hard actually feels like.
I'm fundamentally interested in what humanity is going to invent next.
Here at Behaviour we are optimists, particularly when it comes to environmental issues. We believe human ingenuity got us into this mess and it will be human ingenuity that will get us out of it. How do you guys feel? Where do you sit on that spectrum from doom and gloom to a more positive future? How do you feel about the challenges that we face in the next hundred years? Do you think we’re going to be wiped out like the Egyptians or are we going to be colonizing Mars in Vollebak spacesuits?
At the end of last year we did a survey on the future and also white paper. And the survey had questions like “if we’re on Mars, are you going to be a settler or an explorer?” and “Is it fate to be an intergalactic species?” And what was really interesting was mine and Nick’s opinions dovetailed with that of our audience. The vast majority of them on Mars would be explorers. Most of them would take a plane ticket to Mars without a return ticket. Most of them believe this is our fate to become an intergalactic species.
If you look at the great migrations out of Africa, when we left the Rift Valley fifty-ish thousand years ago. We had to leave. And out of that came clothing, language, society, philosophy, infrastructure. What I’m fundamentally interested in is, what is humanity going to invent next? I believe there are some things that we haven’t invented yet that are truly, truly paradigm shifting and profound. It’s very hard to conceive of because we’re so far detached now from the people who literally invented philosophy and language and design and art and writing and arithmetic and maths and astronomy, that it feels very difficult to think, is there a new type of thing that’s going to be invented?
We look at the way the solar system works now and we say, this is explained by mathematics and quantum mechanics. And a thousand years ago, if you’d asked someone, they would have said this is explained by religion. Before that, they would have said this is explained by “the spirit”. A thousand years before and they would have said this is explained by “superstition” and a thousand years before that… and you can keep going back. A thousand years ago they would have had a totally different explanation for all of the things that are happening right now. We have the arrogance as a society now to think we have all the answers. But in a thousand years time history shows us we won’t think those are the answers anymore.
There’s some huge shifts that still have to come. We’re at the point, this fascinating point, where for the first time ever, we have the physical ability to destroy our own planet, and also leave it. It’s taken 4.5 billion years of evolution to get to the point where we could drop enough bombs to destroy ourselves and destroy everything. But at the same time, if all of humanity focused on it, we could also settle on Mars within 10 to 15 years.
This is an amazing moment to be alive. We have the physical ability to destroy our own planet, and also settle Mars within 10 years.
I’d be floored if in the next hundred years there isn't something that comes along that blows apart our understanding. I design for that future.
So this is an amazing moment to be alive, a moment that no human has ever experienced before. We have the power to destroy the planet and settle on a new one. That moment is very likely to create some paradigm shifts in thinking and throw up things that we simply haven’t thought about before. Honestly, I’d be surprised if Elon doesn’t come up with it. It’s going to be some kind of “oh fuck, we are all actually machines” or we’re all going to discover, “oh shit, secretly we’re all aliens”. There’s going to be something we find like “we actually do live in the Matrix because we just proved our entire world is to 2D.”
I’d be floored if in the next hundred years there isn’t something that comes along that blows apart our understanding. Because our understanding is always blown apart in key bits of history where huge amounts of change is happening. And we are in a bit of history where a huge amount of change is happening. And so you can look at this micro version of history, which is, hey, we’ve all had to shut down for a bit in Covid,there’s going to be some riots and then there’s going to be lots of Burning Man festivals when it’s all gone.
Huge, fundamental shifts are happening in what is to be a human being and where does a human being live and how does a human being interact. It has to change something. It’s impossible to predict what’s going to give but technology is advancing enough that you and I will probably be 60 and there will be something that someone’s invented where you go “Can you remember before… X?”
I design for that future. It may well be on another planet or it may well be on Earth. The thing I’m fundamentally interested in is, what part does clothing have to play in this? Clothing is ultimately going to become a delivery mechanism for strength, intelligence, medicine, whatever it is. No society yet has made itself nudist everywhere! You wear clothes all the time, your body is giving off huge amounts of data all the time and so clothes are going to be the answer.
Someone is going to make those clothes for the future and it might as well be us.
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