Creative Industries

We're a small country doing incredible things. David Hieatt talks maverick thinking.

David Hieatt

Tiny companies can have a mighty influence. It’s just a question of the right mavericks building the right teams – at the right time and place. And that’s Wales today, says David Hieatt, founder of Huit Denim and the DO Lectures.

Making small giants. That’s the future of Wales. Small but influential: that beautiful ‘pocket of small’, doing things in a unique and interesting way. We need to get to the future earlier than anyone else.

We make jeans for the chef René Redzepi. He has a restaurant in Copenhagen called Noma, which started by serving 45 people, and he became the world’s best chef. Just 45 people, yet that pocket of small had an incredible influence around the world.

We need more SBIs - ‘small but influential’ businesses. We can build a beautiful culture of small-but-incredible, doing pioneering, innovative, inspiring things. That’s what I say to the team every day. We don’t have to be the biggest. But we can have as much influence as the bigger brands.

Failure is part of the process. If you’re doing things in a new and unique way, the formula has not yet been set, so the propensity to fail is greater. We accept it as part of the entrepreneurial approach. If you back ten people, maybe eight would fail. But two successes are enough. Silicon Valley works on one in ten, and they’re doing fine.

Think of a honeycomb. If one cell fails, there are still hundreds left in the hive. If you build one big thing that employs thousands of people, and it fails, it’s devastating. Better to have 200 companies of 25 people. If one fails, it’s okay. You can build a more robust economy out of small-but-influential.

The unproven path is where the true gold is. Why dig for gold where everyone else has found it? If you dig for gold where no one else has found it before, maybe you won’t find anything. But if you do… that’s the true gold.

Do something that others can’t, or won’t, or haven’t thought of. That needs a new approach, a new strategy, a new way of thinking, a new way of doing. But that makes it really exciting. Wales can be a small giant if we are creating and daring.

Small countries can do incredible things. Look at Estonia - they understand the future. You can’t just try and be cheaper than everywhere else. We’re a creative nation. Take blockchain technology. It’s not a case of if it’s going to happen. It is going to happen, and it’s going to change everything. Maybe we should be there.

Sustainability is a given. My daughter said to me, ‘Why would anyone start anything now that’s not sustainable?’ And it’s a great question. Why would you?

We need a hundred mavericks. We have plenty of maverick women and men in Wales. The next step is for them to talk to each other more. If they all got together, a) it’d be a great party, and b) the potential to do more great things is greatly enlarged.

A maverick needs an enemy, preferably a really big one. It doesn’t have to be another brand. It could be something like pollution, or wasting time. When you know your enemy, your job as an entrepreneur is to find a better way.

You can’t do anything without a team. Your biggest skill as an entrepreneur is the ability to build a team. That’s why football coaches get paid millions of pounds, because it’s hard to build an incredible team. But once you do it, it’s magic.

You need clarity. In Hiut we ask questions like, ‘What is our voice, what are we, what aren’t we, what would success be, what would failure look like, what are our weaknesses?’ When a team has clarity, confidence and certainty, it can communicate in an incredible way.

Imagination is powerful. Confidence comes from knowing you can do something, and that’s hard when someone hasn’t done it before. You have to paint a picture that shows they can do it. The imagination is an incredibly important tool for people to understand what they’re capable of.

We don’t have a problem attracting bright young people. It’s because we’re allowing them to do creative things.

A crisis can be a good thing. When it hits, you can panic, or you can be calm and use it. You realise you can’t do business as normal, because normal went away. Then you go, okay, what now? It's time for new ways of business to be forged. There are huge optimistic opportunities.

There’s literally nothing stopping us. There has never been a better time in the history of Wales to go and start a small influential company. There are no barriers. You can do it from your bedroom. You can have a website in ten minutes. You have a marketing department called a smartphone. All the excuses have been taken away.

Maverick thinking

David and Clare Hieatt created Hiut Denim out of the ashes of a large jeans factory that had operated for decades in the coastal town of Cardigan. The factory closed in 2002, with the loss of 400 jobs and a whole generation of unique skills. In 2013 the Hieatts re-employed some of the original artisans to make high-quality jeans, which soon gained a cult following. In 2018 Meghan Markle wore a pair of Hiut jeans on a trip to Wales. Demand soared, and they soon moved into bigger premises: the original jeans factory.

There are plenty of fellow mavericks in the Welsh business community. Food writer and broadcaster Simon Wright runs an influential food empire from an old coaching inn in rural Carmarthenshire. The Michelin-starred chef Gareth Ward is breaking boundaries at Ynyshir. Brothers Pete and Danny Cameron are foraging for botanicals to make their award-winning Dyfi gin, while serial entrepreneurs David and Alison Lea-Wilson have struck gold with Halen Môn salt. In tourism you have the extraordinary fforest empire created by James Lynch in Cardigan, while the world’s biggest and fastest zip wires were created by ex-Royal Marine commando Sean Taylor. You can find mavericks in TV – Jane Trantor and Julie Gardner of Bad Wolf are great examples – as well as Tech, where companies like Sina Yamani’s Yoello and Paul Shepherd’s We Build Bots are exploring disruptive technologies. Hugo Spowers’ Riversimple hydrogen car is ushering a new green generation of transport.

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